For many Americans, to heat up wine may seem like sacrilege. However, the process of mulling—adding sugar, spices and fruit to a heated drink—is one of the oldest cocktail techniques in the world.
Records of mulled wine date back to 300 B.C. and the Egyptians, who dubbed their creation the “elixir of the afterlife.” Greek philosopher Hippocrates was said to prescribe spiced wine as a medicinal tonic, as did Pliny the Elder much later during Roman times. As the Romans traveled north, so did their penchant for mulled wine.
One of the countries with deep cultural ties to mulled wine is Great Britain, with mentions of the drink popping up in medieval cookbooks. The heat and spices helped cover up the astringency of poorly made, oxidized wine, and for a time was considered healthier than the drinking water.
Bordeaux’s clarets were the base wine of choice, according to 16th-century references books. A version of mulled wine, called “Smoking Bishop,” is mentioned in the Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol.
Today, giant crock pots are set atop the bars of a large number of pubs in Britain, and few families would let Christmas Day pass without a pot of wine mulling on the stove.
The Global Flavors of Mulled Wine
There are as many different names for mulled wine as there are recipes, but the most common ingredients include sugar, citrus (oranges, lemons and/or limes), cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, star anise and cardamom. Here is what you might find in variations on the hot spiced wine drink around the world:
Glühwein, Germany/Austria: brandy or rum
Vin Chaud, France: Cognac
Vinho Quente, Portugal/Brazil: Port and Madeira
Vino Caliente, Spain: Vanilla bean and Brandy de Jerez
Gløgg, Norway: Aquavit, raisins and sliced almonds
Greyano Vino, Bulgaria: Honey and peppercorn
Caribou, Quebec: Whiskey and maple syrup
In the U.S., mulled wine has not enjoyed the same widespread popularity as elsewhere. However, mulled wine can be found increasingly at bars and restaurants in cold-weather states and on holiday dinner tables.
Jason Zuliani, co-owner of Dedalus Wines in Burlington, Vermont, explains his relationship to mulled wine, as well as ordering tips for the best wines to use as the drink’s base.
“I never thought I’d be into mulled wine,” says Zuliani. “Let’s face it, under most circumstances, I just want to drink what the winemaker put in the bottle. My next door neighbor, Iris, makes a killer Glühwein. Over the last couple of years, I’ve actually found myself looking forward to it.”
“It turns out that a full-bodied red with little to no oak on it makes for an awesome, toe-tingling, belly-warming mulled wine,” Zuliani continues. “This year, we used a few bottles of Clos la Coutale Cahors, a Malbec from southern France. The wine is delicious and lends a bit of garrigue to the spice mix Iris uses in her Glühwein.”
For Natasha David, owner of the New York City cocktail bar Nitecap, mulled wine warms her heart as well as her belly.
“I love mulled wine,” says David. “I grew up in Germany, so mulled wine is very nostalgic for me. Germany has absolutely amazing Christmas markets, and I remember walking through them as a child, the mulling spices filling the air. I always make a pot of mulled wine on Christmas Day. Nothing is quite as festive and comforting, in my opinion.”
Nightingale’s Mulled Wine Recipe
Carrie McCabe-Johnston, co-owner of food and cocktail lounge Nightingale in Minneapolis, has included mulled wine on her winter menu since 2013, and has seen its popularity grow.
“I had a woman call in October to see if it had hit the menu yet. It gets so cold in Minneapolis in the winter months that [mulled wine] is a perfect warming drink,” McCabe-Johnston recently said on a day when the temperature was -13°F.
- 4 bottles Spanish Grenache
- 3 oranges, zested and juiced
- 1 cup brandy
- 1 cup Cointreau
- 8 cloves
- 1 tablespoon whole allspice
- 1 tablespoon whole coriander seed
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon whole aniseed
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 canela sticks (or substitute cinnamon)
- 2 cup brown sugar
- 1 (3-inch) piece ginger, peeled and sliced
Simmer all ingredients together about 15–30 minutes, until well-seasoned and flavored. Strain before serving.