Words by Barbora Ormerod
Nothing heralds the arrival of the festive season like the smell of mulled wine on the crisp winter air. These days we mostly associate such drinks with advent; no Christmas market would be complete without the stuff.
It makes sense to drink hot, fortifying drinks when the weather is cold, and in second century Rome mulled wine was indeed drunk to ward off ill health in winter. As the Romans spread across Europe, conquering most of it along the way, they brought the drink with them. Over time it became widely popular, not just as a ‘medicine’ for the colder months but also as an effective way to camouflage wines of dubious quality (a feature that remains handy today).
In medieval Britain, a similar beverage also gained popularity. Known as wassail, it was a winter punch originally made with hot mead and apples, but which evolved into a gentler brew of warmed cider, often fortified with brandy, madeira or sherry. The Old Norse name translates roughly as “be well”, and toasting with wassail became a common drinking ritual to bring health, happiness and a plentiful cider apple harvest next year. Mulled cider and caroling are both modern remnants of this tradition in Britain.
Whichever mulled beverage you opt for, there are a few ‘rules’ to bear in mind. No need to buy expensive wine, as any complexity of flavour will be lost among the spices and flavouring. However, sour and unpleasant flavours can be difficult to mask, so avoid low grade stuff too. Look for a simple, full bodied and fruity wine. The same goes for cider; aim for something plain, dry and still. A dash of brandy, sloe gin or even madeira or port is a great way to give the drink more of an oomph and the drinker more of a buzz.
Sweetening can be done with dried fruit like raisins and figs, or simply with sugar. The best guarantee of a delicious concoction is to keep tasting it as you go, ensuring it doesn’t stray too far in any direction.
Fresh fruits like apples and oranges are also recommended – they may have a greater impact than you expect. Use whole spices as these are easy to strain out. Standard options include cinnamon, ginger, cloves (use restraint, these are strong), star anise, cardamom and perhaps a little vanilla. You can of course get more adventurous with additions like bay leaf, nutmeg or dried rose petals for a floral aroma. For best results, mull your wine or cider at least the day before you intend to serve it, letting all the elements steep for a stronger, deeper flavour.
Should you fancy trying something different this season, make yourself a rum grog. This was a favourite with the British Navy in the 17th century, and for a good reason – a swig of hot rum is a highly invigorating experience. Just combine a couple of shots of rum with a cup of freshly boiled water, with sugar and lemon juice to taste. For added flavour, simmer the water with a few cloves and a cinnamon quill. Enjoy!