They're missing it. Fifteen minutes in the tasting room/shop at the Shady Grove Meadery, a stone's throw from Interstate 75 in Lake City, and it's obvious: These kindly vintners, whose bottles have been available at local liquor stores since 2004, are oblivious to the mythic marketing opportunities that surround them.
C'mon, guys. Honey? Local? Mother Nature's answer to Mucinex? You really aren't going to tell the people who push their way up to the new-wood bar with sparkling champagne glasses that daily doses of mead might satisfy the recommended daily allowance of hay-fever-fighting local honey?
Not if you're studious Johnny Cosgrove, he of the soothing voice and unruly, graying hair. One of the three SGM co-owners, he's instead going to talk about the clover honey they use in the Touch-Me-Not Orange-Clove Metheglin (like all meads, it's essentially fermented honey-water wine). SMG's clover honey, says Cosgrove, is spicier than your typical Sue Bee, procured from a fellow in Cocke County who "runs bees" in the state forest. His 55-gallon barrels say "Sue Bee," too, because that's where the guy buys them.
All this harping on Sue Bee. Me, now I'd be tempted to work the conversation around to, "That liqueur-style pineapple mead, you could probably take care of your hay fever forever and ever with a shot of that right on top of your bowl of vanilla ice cream every night before bed."
But not our man Cosgrove. He sticks to the topic of scuppernog muscadine grapes in the Musky Mountain Mead. "It's drier than what you're probably thinking," he says. "I have no idea why everyone has to make heavy, sweet wine with muscadine."
Contrary to every particle of information I possess about mead, he's right. The hype-free "lightly sparkling" mead is crispy, dry, with a hint of maybe chamomile or some other dry flowers. "Probably the clover honey," says Cosgrove. He does leave Sue Bee out of this conversation, but still doesn't take up my next myth-in-the-making suggestion when a burly biker in a bright orange Harley shirt leaves with two Valhalla-size 1.5-liter bottles. "Guess this mead's the choice of the modern-day Viking," I muse.
"Hmm?" Cosgrove asks.
"The biker guy? The Norse legends of the mythical properties of mead? Bikers are sorta like modern-day Vikings..." I trail off.
Cosgrove looks puzzled. "The bikers are good to us," he finally says. "We're at the start of a really great mountain trail, and they always drive by quietly."
Still, the tough guys really like the mead, eh? "Sometimes bikers stop in here, sure," says Cosgrove.
One of Cosgrove's other partners, Hal Jennings (the third is Bill Chase), comes in to serve right about then, and he is no better. He quickly dispels any illusion about this being a personal quest to bring a mystical beverage to the uninitiated in the hills of Tennessee as we sample the Gold Medal (2008 Wines of the South Competition) Blackberry/Wildflower Methelgin. "Hmm, good one," he says after downing the non-sparkling, oaky-smokey, heady stuff. "Haven't had this for, like, a month."
So if you can go weeks without it, why mead? "Ah, we really just got the idea from home brewing," shares Cosgrove off-handedly.
Jennings tells me about mead flavorings; the apricot involves essence, not fruit, for example. The pineapple is made with crushed fruit, though. "Frozen concentrate," corrects Cosgrove, politely.
We're tasting that one, it's sweet but not clingy, with zingy, pineapple overtones. "Maybe this was concentrate," concedes Jennings, and follows with the one marketable statement of the day. "I think it's even better than the last batch."
I try once more on the way out. "So you guys are the only meadery in all of Tennessee?"
"Hmm," says Cosgrove, kindly to the end. "I guess we probably are."