Nothing says winter wonderland as warmly as an aromatic mug of spiced comfort.
When opening il Giallo Osteria & Bar in Atlanta in November, and considering what to pour for customers, chef/owner Jamie Adams recalled an experience he had in Italy years ago.
“When I was living there, I took a little ski trip one winter and was up in the mountains north of Milan,” says Adams, co-owner—along with Leonardo Moura—of Atlanta’s Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. “There, it’s kind of rustic. On the slopes there would be a couple of little places serving beverages. This one place was a log cabin, and they were cooking sausages on the stove. You’d get those on the plate—served with mulled wine.”
His version of Vin Brulé appears on the new restaurant’s beverage menu for $9, served in a mug. Sangiovese wine is simmered on the stovetop with brown sugar, apple peel, an orange and a lemon (both peeled), cloves, a cinnamon stick, and ground nutmeg, then strained, torched, and served.
“It doesn’t need a big, important wine, but something along the lines of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon,” Adams says. “It doesn’t need to be an old wine, but it’s got to be a decent wine.” On the menu, and during table service, the tale of how he came to love this drink is delivered loud and clear. After all, “a story is what sells things,” Adams says.
Mulled to Order
And the story of the season is that, across the U.S., mixologists and wine directors are coping with frigid winter temperatures by creating mulled wines and ciders. For Shinya Yamao, the head bartender at Piora in New York City’s West Village, his Japanese culture shines through, as a nice match with the restaurant’s modern American cuisine. A mulled red wine—with cloves, cinnamon, star anise, honey, and Japanese fine cane sugar—is always made to order and fits seamlessly into his Japanese-style cocktail program. It’s on the menu every winter.
“Instead of the batched version of mulled wine most places do,” says Yamao, “I wanted to make really good mulled wine to order. I make my own spice mixture with cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, and star anise. I also add honey liqueur, and ginger liqueur, which give the drink a bit of sweetness and a ginger flavor without overpowering the other ingredients.”
“People love it. During New York’s cold winters, many guests walk straight up to the bar—even before reading the menu—and ask if we have mulled wine to warm them up,” he says.
But it’s not just the cold climates that are turning to mulled wines and ciders for the winter months. At the Grant Grill Lounge, tucked into The U.S. Grant (a hotel in San Diego), head mixologist, sommelier, and certified cicerone Jeff Josenhans developed two mulled wines just before the Thanksgiving holiday. Mulled Riesling “has dried lemon peel, coriander seed, and whole white peppercorns, and we sweeten that up with sugar, honey, and cardamom. We tend to use Spätlese (late-harvest) Riesling and an Alsatian-style brandy to spike the mulled Riesling.” Mulled Syrah is also on the menu. Josenhans likes to use a French Syrah and blend with cloves, orange peel, cinnamon, allspice, black peppercorns, brown sugar, and Cognac.
Each costs $12 a glass. To get the word out, he says, “We use a lot of social media. Our restaurant and bar has a Facebook page that features all of our drinks and cocktails.” While mulled beverages joined the drinks lineup eight years ago, new recipes are developed each year, courtesy of Josenhans, to refresh the menu.
Mulled drinks are also an extension of a venue’s brand. Donna Moodie, the owner of Marjorie Restaurant in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, firmly believes in using produce, meats, drinks, and various culinary ingredients from local farms. And if she can’t do that, then she looks for companies that enthusiastically attach people’s faces and a story with the brand. With a vintage turn-table (complete with LPs), eclectic artwork, and colorful, antique furnishings, the setting helps guests immediately feel at home. In fact, it was Moodie’s passion for hosting memorable dinner parties that led her to be a restaurateur.
Each winter she offers two mulled drinks—one served warm and the other served at room temperature. “Cider House Rules” (pear purée, Bulleit bourbon, and pear brandy, topped off with cider and served chilled) features organic cider from Nashi Orchards in Vashon, Washington. “They like delivering cider to smaller restaurants,” says Moodie. “The owner of the orchard actually hand-delivers.”
“Be Thankful” was a new edition last fall. Served warm, the mulled-wine cocktail features Starvation Alley cranberry juice, dry Curacau, port, mulled red wine, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. It is served in a brandy glass with a twist of orange. “Everyone keeps commenting on how beautiful the room smells,” says Moodie, adding that it fits into her desire to create an “eclectic, slightly homey environment.”
Mulled cider is also served at Ca Va Brasserie & Lounge in New York City, a Todd English restaurant inside the InterContinental New York–Times Square. Like Moodie, Chef Michael Rostafin, who developed the drink, believes in having local products. Inspired by annual trips to pick apples in New York’s Hudson Valley with his wife, he blends together Kraken dark spiced rum, hot apple cider, and lemon juice in a hot-toddy glass, then tops it with a dash of cinnamon, a dollop of whipped cream, and a drizzling of honey. The apple cider he takes seriously, sourcing apples from his favorite farm in the Hudson Valley, pressing them in-house. By taking his time with the sourcing, the drink actually expresses different character each week throughout apple season, a result of different varietals as well as different periods during the harvest.
Folding the mulled drink into an event is a sure way to create buzz. That’s what happens at Mr. C Beverly Hills, in Beverly Hills, California, where the Venetian-inspired hotel serves Vin Brulè in its Lobby Lounge each winter. Mugs of the Vin Brulè are served, along with roasted chestnuts, to create a cozy, wintery vibe, not always easy to do in Southern California. However, A Winter Poolside Cinema series, held after dark, coaxes customers to order the drink as the perfect pairing in the al fresco setting.