Herbal wines and herbal mead (Metheglin) were once incredibly common. They were consumed daily in the middle ages, alongside herbal beers (known as gruit). Some were simply flavored with herbs, while others were potent medicinals. Regardless of your goals, the process for making herbal wines and meads is the same, and you can use almost any edible or medicinal herb.
Historically, herbal wines, meads, beers, and ales were just another way to take your medicine.
Sometimes herbs were used for flavoring and preservation in these brews, as hops are today, but often they were actually made for medicinal reasons. A homemade herbal wine or mead is a great way to preserve medicinal herbs in a shelf-stable and ready-to-use way.
Think of it like herbal tinctures that we use today, but simpler to make at home from scratch from ingredients you could gather in the wild in the middle ages (like herbs and honey).
Herbal tinctures are much the same, but they use distilled alcohol as a solvent to extract the medicinal constituents in the herbs. Since distilled alcohol involved more equipment to make yourself (historically at least, as it’s illegal to make it yourself these days) and it’s always been expensive to buy, making herbal wines and meads was a simple solution.
Beyond that, many herbs have both alcohol-soluble and water-soluble medicinal properties, and wine is better at extracting both.
Generally, tinctures are made with high-proof spirits, and don’t pull out all the water-soluble constituents in the herbal material. A wine or mead, on the other hand, will be somewhere between 12 and 20% alcohol, depending on how it’s made.
That’s enough to ensure it’s shelf stable, and just the right balance of alcohol and water to pull out all the goodness from the herbs.
My goal here is to walk you through the process of making wine or mead from any herb, and also to point you in the direction of further resources if you want to dive deeper into the craft of herbal wines. If you are seriously interested in learning all there is to know about herbal wines, I’d suggest taking The Craft of Herbal Fermentation from the Herbal Academy of New England. They cover wine, mead, kombucha, lacto-ferments, and more in an easy-to-understand online course with plenty of recipes.
If you’re new to winemaking, I have a winemaking series that walks you through all parts of the winemaking process. If there’s something you don’t understand in this guide to making herbal wines, you can refer to any of these more in-depth guides:
- Beginners Guide to Making Fruit Wines, where I take you through all the steps in the winemaking process.
- Small Batch Winemaking can be done for micro-batches, making as little as 1 bottle of wine at a time, and the process and equipment are a bit different with super tiny batches.
- How to Make Mead (Honey Wine) is mostly the same, but there are some particularities when working with honey.
- Equipment for Winemaking, which covers all the durable equipment you’ll need to make your first batch (besides your ingredients).
- Ingredients for Winemaking, which covers all the other things you’ll need (besides yeast).
- Yeast for Winemaking can get complicated quickly, and there are dozens of common strains (and hundreds of obscure ones). Picking the right one is actually pretty important, but I’ve broken them all down for you.
- How to Make Wine from Grapes, though not necessarily for beginners, but everyone always asks about this one first!
- Winemaking Recipes can be hard to find, but I’ve put together a list of more than 50 to get you started.
- Meadmaking Recipes are even more obscure, but I’ve got you covered there too.
I also have a specific guide to making floral wines and meads, and many of these edible flowers are also medicinal flowers as well. Recipes like elderflower wine (and mead) and Rose wine (and mead) qualify as both herbal wines as well as floral wines.
Ingredients for Herbal Wines & Meads
The ingredients for making a basic herbal wine or mead are quite simple, and not all that different from making fruit wines. Herbs are used for flavoring and their medicinal benefits, but most of the fermentable sugar comes from honey or plain sugar. Since the herbs generally aren’t acidic or tannic like fruits, you’ll also need to add lemon juice (or acid blend) and tannin powder (or black tea).
Lastly, you’ll need a bit of yeast nutrient powder to feed the yeasts, as they can’t live on sugar alone, and they need the micro-nutrients that grapes would provide if you were making grape wine.
The basic recipe for a herbal wine is as follows:
- 1 cup to 1 quart of herbal material
- 5 1/2 to 6 cups sugar (or 3 lbs honey for mead)
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1 tsp yeast nutrient
- 1/8 to 1/4 tsp wine tannin
- 1 packet wine yeast
I’d suggest referring to my guide on ingredients for winemaking if you’d like to learn more about why each ingredient is important and what you can substitute if you don’t have that specific thing on hand.
That said, here are the basics:
The herbs you choose for your herbal wine depend on your goals, both in terms of flavor and in terms of medicinal value. You don’t have to choose medicinal herbs, and a simple lemon balm mead is absolutely delicious even if you’re not focused on making medicinal mead.
Be aware that not every herb mixes well with alcohol, though many do. Most of the common ones that are used in the kitchen or in herbal teas work well with alcohol, but it’s always a good idea to check into the specific herbs you intend to use.
A good resource for this is the The Craft of Herbal Fermentation course from the herbal academy, which I mentioned earlier, but I’d also recommend the book Sacred Herbal Healing Beers. While the title says “beer” it does in fact cover all manner of ferments, and many of the recipes included are for herbal “ales” which are made with sugar instead of malt…so they’re also technically herbal wines.
The main thing here is you want to check with a reputable source to determine if the herb you’re using is safe with alcohol, and in the amounts or concentrations you’ll be consuming when the brew is finished.
Again, most common herbs work well here, but there are some more potent medicinals that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
The Compleat Meadmaker suggests the following herbs for meads:
- Juniper Berries
- Lemon Balm
- Lemon Grass
- Lemon Verbena
- Rose Hips
- Sweet Woodruff
Sugar or Honey
Since you’re not working with fruit, you do need to provide something to feed the yeast. If you use sugar, the result will be what’s known as a “country wine,” while honey based beverages are called meads (or Metheglin).
As a general rule, you’ll need about 3 lbs per gallon, but the total amount can vary based on how much residual sugar you’d like (ie. sweetness) and the type of yeast you’re using.
Beleive it or not, the sweetness at the end will mostly be determined by how vigorous the yeast is, and that varies by strain.
A yeast that finishes at 12% alcohol will result in a sweeter wine than a stronger champagne yeast that finishes at 18% alcohol, assuming you start both with the same amount of sugar. If the sugar is converted to alcohol, it won’t contribute to sweetness in the finished wine.
Yeast need an acidic environment to thrive, but more importantly, some types of spoilage bacteria can take over if the ferment isn’t started in an acidic environment.
When you’re working with fruit, it’s naturally acidic, but herbs don’t really impact the pH and the mixture will start out pretty neutral.
It’s important to add lemon juice or powdered acid blend (a common winemaking ingredient) to drop the pH to ensure success. (This is not optional.)
Sugar is calories, but it’s not a balanced diet for yeast. They need other nutrients to thrive, and most of those are naturally present in wine grapes. But other fruits don’t have yeast nutrients in the right concentrations, and herbs don’t really have anything to feed the yeast.
When working with herbal wines, you do need to add either powdered yeast nutrient or a handful of raisins to the batch. Yeast nutrient is more dependable and neutral tasting.
Tannin contributes to the mouthfeel and perceived “body” of a finished wine, and greatly enhances your experience when you’re drinking the finished product. Wines without tannin will taste thin and unbalanced.
This is entirely a taste thing, and tannins aren’t required for successful fermentation.
Some herbs actually contain natural tannins (and wine grapes also contain natural tannins). If you get a “dry” feeling in your mouth when you drink a herbal tea made from the herbs you’ve chosen, there’s a good chance they have natural tannins. (Black tea has natural tannins, for example, as do grape and currant leaves.)
Wine tannin is a simple tannin powder that you can add in very small amounts (literally a pinch to a gallon) and it can make a huge difference in the flavor of the finished wine. It is optional but highly recommended.
You can also add 1 cup of strongly brewed black tea per gallon for a similar effect.
Believe it or not, a lot of the flavor in your finished wine will be contributed by the yeast. Different strains of yeast contribute floral or fruity esters, while others taste tropical or spicy. Each yeast will add a different flavor, and also has a different alcohol tolerance.
The alcohol tolerance determines when the yeast will die out, effectively stopping fermentation, and stabilizing the wine at a certain ABV %. When the yeast reach their alcohol tolerance, the remaining sugar will be left behind…so the sweetness of the finished wine is determined as much by the sugar in the recipe as it is by the alcohol tolerance of the yeast strain.
In the middle ages, certain structures and locations were known for their brews, namely timber framed buildings and wineries where yeast lived literally in the timbers.
These days, we’re not relying on yeast inoculation from the environment, and as a result, you can make wonderful herbal wines just about anywhere just by adding the right yeast.
Herbal wines can use a variety of yeast strains, but some of the most common choices are listed below. They range from 12% up to 18% alcohol tolerance, which will allow you to choose how alcoholic (and also how sweet) you want your finished wine or mead:
- Red Star Cote des Blancs ~ A slow fermenter that gently brings out subtle fruit and floral esters during fermentation. It’s often used for apple wines, floral wines and sweet fruity wines since it retains many of the volatile flavors that other more vigorous yeasts can drive off. When working with herbal wines, this one is best for subtle, delicate flavors like lavender. Alcohol tolerance to 12-14%, ideal temperature range 64 to 86 F.
- Lavin D47 ~ Adds a fruity and spicy aroma to the finished wine, and works well with “spicy” herbs like cinnamon, cloves, ginger and others with more of a spice character. Also brings out some tropical fruit and citrus notes in the finished wine, which work well with spices too. Moderately vigorous, and may be slow to start fermentation. Alcohol tolerance to 15%, ideal temperature range 59 to 86 F.
- Lalvin K1-V1116 ~ A dependable fermenter that works well in difficult fermenting conditions (low/high temperatures, low nutrients, etc). You’ll need to add a bit more sugar with this yeast, or you’ll end up with a very dry wine. High alcohol tolerance, up to 18%, and an incredible temperature range from 50 to 95F.
Beyond these choices, I also have a guide to choosing wine yeast with dozens of other options.
Equipment for Herbal Wines and Meads
The equipment for winemaking can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Almost all of the equipment you “need” is optional, and there’s likely something in your kitchen that will work in place of specialized carboys and the like.
My guide to winemaking equipment walks you through each thing, and provides substitutions using common kitchen equipment instead.
The basics include the following:
- One Gallon Glass Carboy (x2) ~ A narrow neck fermentation vessel, also called a carboy, will hold the flower wine while it ferments. You’ll need two since the wine needs to be moved to a clean container (leaving the sediment behind) after 7-10 days of active primary fermentation. They often come in a kit with a rubber stopper and water lock together.
- Rubber Stopper and Water Lock ~ Basically a one-way valve that allows CO2 to escape, but prevents contaminants from entering the fermentation vessel, and it helps prevent the wine from turning to vinegar.
- Brewing Siphon ~ Used to move your flower wine from one container to another, and for bottling.
- Wine bottles ~ The best option for bottling, wine bottles will allow the flower wine to be stored for longer periods. Beer bottles and Flip-top Grolsch bottles will sometimes work in a pinch for short-term storage.
- Bottle Corker ~ If you’re using wine bottles, you’ll need a corker as well. Be sure to use clean, new corks for bottling the wine.
- Brewing Sanitizer ~ A one-step, no-rinse brewing sanitizer cleans and sanitizes all equipment before use.
Making Herbal Wines and Mead
This basic process can be used to make herbal wine with any edible herb, whether cullinary or medicinal. The herbs can be fresh or dried, but when dried, you usually only need about half as much because the flavors are more concentrated. The total amount of herbal material used will depend on the herb you’ve chosen, but generally, the process is the same regardless of the type.
To make a mead, you use honey instead of sugar and allow the wine to ferment a good bit longer (the yeast convert honey to alcohol a bit slower than they work on sugar).
Infuse the Herbs
You can do a cold infusion right in the fermenter, which works well for delicate herbs like lavender or chamomile, or a hot infusion before starting the wine (basically using herbal tea in place of water in the recipe). Hot infusions work well for tougher more durable herbal material, like roots and stems, but also dried berries like elderberry, rose hips and hawthorn.
With anything that has a lot of delicate volatile flavors, like flowers, I usually opt for “cold infusion” as it helps them retain more of their volatile aromas and flavors. That can be tricky in a traditional narrow-neck carboy, so I usually start cold infusions in a wide-mouth fermenter.
This is how I make my dandelion wine each year, as the petals can mat together in the fermenter and clog the waterlock, preventing all the bubbles from escaping…and eventually resulting in a big mess.
If doing a cold infusion, place the herbal material into the fermenter. Next, bring the water and sugar to a boil on the stove, stirring to dissolve. Allow the mixture to cool completely, and then pour over the flowers in the fermenter (along with the remaining ingredients, except the yeast. This includes yeast nutrients, lemon juice, and tannin powder).
If doing a hot infusion, add the herbs to the water as it’s heating on the stove and then strain out before placing the herbal tea into the fermenter (in place of water).
Yeast is added right before fermentation, and it’s rehydrated in a bit of plain water first.
Dried yeast can “shock” if it goes directly into your sugary wine mixture. Be sure that the wine mixture is at room temperature before adding the yeast (if you heated the water to make a warm herbal tea, rather than a cold infusion).
The mixture should start vigorously bubbling within 24 to 72 hours.
For the first 7 to 14 days, the wine is in what’s known as primary fermentation.
The yeast are working fast and rapidly multiplying, it’s often vigorous and creates a lot of sediment at the bottom of the fermenter.
There’s little alcohol at this point, so primary fermentation is often done in an open bucket that’s just covered with a towel. An airlock isn’t strictly required at this point.
Still, I think things are a bit cleaner if you use a wide-mouth fermenter with an airlock, especially if you have kids or pets at home. Anything without a lid is subject to problems with when you have both cats and young children in the house.
After the initial vigorous fermentation is complete in “primary,” the wine is “racked” into a clean container.
This is done with a siphon to avoid stirring up the sediment or “lees” at the bottom of the primary fermenter. If wine is left on the lees, it can develop off flavors.
At this point, the herbal material is filtered out of the mix, and you should just have a liquid that’s moved into the next step.
Once the wine is racked into secondary, it’s sealed with an airlock. That’s a one-way valve that prevents oxygen from getting in, but allows the CO2 produced during fermentation to escape.
This prevents the alcohol that’s produced from turning into vinegar.
Secondary usually lasts about a month, but can last much longer depending on the recipe. With mead, secondary is usually 2 to 4 months as honey takes longer for the yeasts to digest.
The wine should be kept at a cool room temperature, and in a dark place without direct sunlight. Ideally, a basement or back closet that’s about 65 to 68 F (18 to 20 C).
Tasting and Adjusting
After secondary, it’s time to taste the wine and adjust as needed.
At this point, it’ll taste very “rough” as it hasn’t bottle aged at all, but it should give you a rough idea of the final flavors to expect.
If it’s very dry, this is where you’d add some sugar or honey, or if it’s too sweet, you can consider adding some acidity to balance (or pitching in a more vigorous yeast strain to eat up more of the sugars).
You can add more tannin or really anything that might be needed.
Or, if it’s good, just go right to bottling.
Tertiary Fermentation (optional)
If you have made adjustments, you’ll need to rack the wine into another fermenter for another couple of weeks to allow things to settle out before bottling.
To bottle, use a brewing siphon to move the wine into wine bottles and seal them with corks.
Some people opt to sterilize their wines with potassium sorbate at bottling, which prevents additional fermentation in the bottle.
I do not sterilize, I just make sure the secondary is long enough that the yeast has died off, and I’ll rack into tertiary if necessary to get any last activity out of the yeast.
Once the wine is bottled, allow it to “bottle condition” for at least 2 weeks, but preferably at least 2 months, before drinking. It’ll taste a lot better after a bit of time to settle in the bottle, trust me.
But after that, enjoy!
Herbal Wine & Mead Recipes
I’ve included a basic recipe for herbal wines or meads in the printable recipe card below. That said, sometimes it’s nice to work from specific tested recipes with the specific herbs you’re going to be using.
In that case, take a look at any of these herbal wine recipes:
- Lemon Balm Mead
- Rose Petal Wine (and Mead)
- Elderflower Wine (and Mead)
- Elderberry Wine
- Rose Mead or Rhodomel Recipe
- Rose Hip Mead
- Spiced Hawthorn and Rose Hip Mead
- Ginger Mead
- St. Johns Wort and Cherry Herbal Mead
Herbal wines can be made with any cullinary or medicinal herb, depending on your goals for either flavor or therapeutic benefit.
- 1 cup to 1 quart of herbal material, fresh or dried, edible or medicinal
- 5 to 6 cups sugar (or 3 lbs honey)
- 4 to 6 cups white grape juice, optional, see note
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1 tsp yeast nutrient
- 1/8 to 1/4 tsp wine tannin
- 1 packet wine yeast (see notes)
Decide whether you're making a herbal wine (with sugar) or mead (with honey). The ingredients for both are the same, except that honey is used in place of sugar in mead. In wine, it can help improve the body of the finished wine if you add 4 to 6 cups white grape juice in place of part of the water, but that's optional. Mead naturally has a nice full body, so you don't need the grape juice if using honey. If using white grape juice, use about 1/2 cup to 1 cup less sugar.
- Add about half a gallon of water to a stock pot and bring it to a boil on the stove. Add the sugar or honey and stir to dissolve. Allow the mixture to cool completely before proceeding. If you're hot infusing the herbs, add them once you've removed the pot from the heat. For a cold infusion, add them into the primary.
- If doing a cold infusion of herbs, add them into the primary fermenter and pour the cooled sugar water over the top of them.
- Add the remaining winemaking ingredients (except yeast), and stir to incorporate.
- Add cool water to the fermenter to nearly fill the container. Mead will require more water since there's no grape juice. Make sure the mixture is cooled, and no hotter than 90 degrees F, but ideally around room temperature.
- Once cool, dissolve the yeast packet in about 1/4 to 1/2 cup room temperature water and allow it to rehydrate for 10 minutes. Add the yeast water to the fermentation vessel.
- Fill with water (if necessary) to reach the neck of the fermentation vessel, and seal with a rubber stopper and water lock.
- Allow the wine to ferment for 10 to 14 days until fermentation slows (primary fermentation).
- Use a siphon to transfer the wine to a clean fermentation vessel, taking care to leave any sediment behind. Filter out the herbal material at this point, and switch to a narrow-neck fermenter if you've been using a wide-neck fermenter. Re-cap with a water lock. For wine, allow it to ferment in secondary for about 4 to 6 weeks. For mead, a minimum of 4 months.
- Bottle the wine or mead. Allow wine to bottle condition for at least 2 weeks, and wait at least 2 months for mead. Flip-top Grolsch style bottles will work for short-term storage, but wine bottles are better if stored for more than 2-3 months.
This is a generic "choose your own adventure" recipe for herbal wine. Make sure you're using a herb that's safe for consumption, especially with alcohol, and make sure it can be taken in quantity without any unwanted effects. Genreally, most herbs you take as herbal teas by the cup full work well as herbal wines.. And obviously, make sure no one has an allergy to the particular herbs you're using.
The sugar amount is generally 2 1/2 to 3 lbs, or 5 to 6 cups. Use more if you're using a yeast that's a stronger fermenter with a higher alcohol tolerance. For mead, I'd suggest around 3 lbs honey.
For yeast, you can use any winemaking yeast. I'd recommend the following varieties specifically for herbal wines:
- Red Star Cote des Blancs ~ A slow fermenter that gently brings out subtle fruit and floral esters during fermentation. It's often used for apple wines, floral wines and sweet fruity wines since it retains many of the volatile flavors that other more vigorous yeasts can drive off. When working with herbal wines, this one is best for subtle, delicate flavors like lavender. Alcohol tolerance to 12-14%, ideal temperature range 64 to 86 F.
- Lavin D47 ~ Adds a fruity and spicy aroma to the finished wine, and works well with "spicy" herbs like cinnamon, cloves, ginger and others with more of a spice character. Also brings out some tropical fruit and citrus notes in the finished wine, which work well with spices too. Moderately vigorous, and may be slow to start fermentation. Alcohol tolerance to 15%, ideal temperature range 59 to 86 F.
- Lalvin K1-V1116 ~ A dependable fermenter that works well in difficult fermenting conditions (low/high temperatures, low nutrients, etc). You'll need to add a bit more sugar with this yeast, or you'll end up with a very dry wine. High alcohol tolerance, up to 18%, and an incredible temperature range from 50 to 95F.
Looking for more types of herbal preparations you can make at home?
- How to Make Herbal Tinctures
- How to Make Herbal Glycerites
- How to Make Herbal Salves
- How to Make a Herbal Oxymel
- Homemade Herbal Shampoo