Last week, Keys’ Meads co-owner Jeff Kesling and head distiller Jeff Wingate sat at a table and swirled amber-colored fluid in small snifters. They were preparing to sample their inventory. The three glasses on the table had taped labels indicating which barrel they had come from: 107, 102 and 006.
“The 006 was aged in a sour beer barrel. Very good, but not in my taste palate,” said Wingate, thoughtfully. He sipped the 107 mead. He tilted his head back. “Amazing. Tastes like heaven. Liquid sunshine.”
“Not gonna lie, it’s my favorite,” said Kesling, pointing at 102.
“It’s like biting into a crisp Gala apple. In used beer barrels, the meads are picking up the flavors of beer,” Wingate said, explaining that Keys’ Meads buys used oak barrels from other breweries to age their meads in, lending each a different flavor.
“We’re lucky if we have eight gallons of that one,” said Kesling. “Four for you, four for me.” The men break into laughter.
Thus goes a typical mead tasting at Keys’ Meads, educational and fun at the same time. “The Jeffs” enjoy a breezy back-and-forth banter. Kesling said that one of the names they’re batting around for their new distillery is “Triple Jeff,” because, believe it or not, the other co-owner, Kesling’s father, is named Jeff Kesling Sr.
But the full-time bartender’s name is Devon Mederos. “We’re gonna give him the name tag ‘Not Jeff,’” joked Kesling.
However, Wingate and Kesling take mead-making very seriously. “Mead is more versatile than wine, honestly, in terms of what you can do with flavors,” said Wingate.
“You can quote both of us as saying that,” said Kesling.
Kesling has lived in the Keys on and off since he was 6 years old, and he has made a living for the most part as an engineer. In 2014, he was inspired to start home-brewing mead because he’s not a huge fan of beer and wine.
If, when you think of mead, you imagine Vikings sitting around a massive wood table, yelling “Argh!” and clinking metal cups in all those Netflix dramas, you can be excused. But according to Delish.com, “While mead has gotten a medieval reputation thanks to movies and TV shows, its history stretches back much further. With its simple fermented honey plus water recipe, mead was one of the very first alcoholic beverages ever made, predating beer and wine — as far back as 3,000 B.C.”
Starting his own meadery business was a natural decision for Kesling. “I’m an entrepreneur. I’m one of those people, ‘If I can, I will.’ I built the walls in this place. The floor. The walls. Very literally,” he said.
The first Keys’ Meads business opened in 2017 on the second floor of an office building at MM 99.3 in Key Largo. But they just moved into a new, more accessible storefront, which is next to Mattress & Beyond at MM 99.4.
“We lucked into this location,” Kesling said. “I came in to buy a mattress. I joked, ‘If you ever decide to close up, I’ll take your location.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m trying to downsize.’ It wasn’t until I was here that I realized how much I was choking while at the last location.”
Kesling uses honey from Wingate’s Pirate Hat Apiary business. The duo met at a local home-brewing competition in 2014, and the rest is history.
“It was a friendship that began as a vendor supplier and now it’s blossomed into a partnership,” explained Wingate. “We may bring honey production in house.”
“Ah, my evil plan is coming to fruition,” replied Kesling.
In addition to selling bottles of meads and tastings, Keys’ Meads also sells a selection of Pirate Hat Apiary products that are made by Wingate and his wife. The items include candles, soaps, body scrubs, and the honey itself.
Kesling said business got a boost in September shortly after Keys’ Meads moved to the current location and artist Ginger Hill put the highly visible mural on the side of the building. Passengers in cars can easily see the colorful painting while sitting at the nearby light.
“The outside mural brought people here. It’s a landmark now,” Kesling said.
But, back to that mead tasting. Wingate waxes poetic about the differences that the honey from the different seasons impart to the mead, depending upon which flowers are available for the bees. For example, in the summer, bees feed on the black mangrove flowers.
“It’s the honey that the Keys are most famous for. The mangroves’ roots are in saltwater, so the honey tastes like salted caramel butterscotch,” said Wingate.
So how often do you sample the mead? the Keys Weekly asked.
“More frequently than we should,” Kesling answered with a twinkle in his eye.
“When you age mead in a barrel, you have to taste it often for quality assurance,” said Wingate. “Every day it gets different. It’s non-reproducible mead.”
“We actually like it non-reproducible,” said Kesling. “When I talk to other breweries, they think it’s a feat of endurance that Budweiser can pull off the reproducibility of beer. We don’t want it reproducible. We want you to say that you like this one better.”
“I really like the 107,” Wingate said, gazing at his glass.
“You really need to take time and enjoy it. It’s not Budweiser,” Kesling said. “You sip it, and you sip it like bourbon. You sip that sucker.” He paused, then turned to Wingate.
“This sour is now my favorite,” Kesling said.
Keys’ Meads tastings are $8 per person for one-third ounces of 10 of their current meads or $16 for all. Bottles are $24 to $38. The address is 99411 Overseas Highway, Key Largo. Hours are Monday to Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. For more information, call 305-204-4596.