It’s time to part ways with summery cocktails and start offering drinks that will warm guests. Mulled wine’s composition varies far and wide, but the hot beverage usually incorporates dry red wine; mulling spices such as clove, cardamom, allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon; fruity additions like oranges and raisins; and a splash of brandy or port.
Perhaps the part-spicy, part-fruity elixir is not the first thing thought of when it comes to fireside boozing, but according to industry experts like Michael Cobb of Sort This Out Cellars in Solvang, California, it is gaining steam among customers. And unsurprisingly so, he says. “Americans crave sweet stuff, and this fits the bill,” he says of his brown sugar-laced recipe.
Caer Ferguson, bar manager of Austin, Texas, cocktail bar and event space The Eleanor, calls mulled wine an unpretentious drink with mass appeal. “When it’s cold, people who aren’t regular cocktail drinkers come in looking for a warm drink that’s not loaded with booze,” she says. “Wine drinkers love it for obvious reasons, but non wine drinkers are fans, too.” She says that like sangria, mulled wine is a drink that guests find to be more approachable than wine: “[With mulled wine, there is] no fussing with complexities, tasting notes, etceteras,” she says.
A storied history
Mulled wine actually has roots in Greece, where spices and sweetening agents were added to make the alcohol more palatable, but it is typically associated with toasting the Christmas season in Europe.
Arlington, Virginia, restaurant Ambar Clarendon and its downstairs lounge, Baba, serve Balkan-inspired food and cocktails—including a seasonal mulled wine. Beverage director and Kosovo native Danilo Simic says the drink, on offer from November to March, is a guest favorite when the snow flies.
Mulled wine is the quintessential cold-weather warmer in Serbian tradition and one that holds a special place in Simic’s heart. “We’re not much of a cocktail culture, but we celebrate all winter holidays with a glass of mulled wine,” he says, adding that it was the first alcoholic drink he ever tasted.
Perfecting the recipe
Over the course of a decade, Sort This Out Cellars’ mulled wine has garnered an enthusiastic fan base. The winery offers DIY kits—which consist of a 750 mL bottle of red blend and a packet of mulling spices, for $25—both in its tasting room and online. Cobb says he sells 7,500 kits per year and has learned that mulled wine is not something people only want to sip beside the Christmas tree. “For the first couple of years, we sold it from October to January, but then in July people would yell at me for not having it,” he recalls.
Cobb says the recipe is quite simple. The spice packet incorporates the usual suspects, and at-home additions call for only water, brown sugar, and apple juice (to “up the aroma,” according to Cobb). Warm it for one hour in a pot on the stove, pour, and savor. “People tend to overcomplicate the recipe, using a slow cooker instead of a pot, or substituting a fancy bottle of wine—and end up ruining it,” he says.
Simic also says the key to crafting a good glass of mulled wine is keeping the recipe simple while leaning on high-quality ingredients—including, in his case, organic brown sugar, whole cinnamon sticks, and chai tea bags. His technique: Cook a large amount in a pot, pre-batch it, warm it to order in an espresso machine, and serve in delicate Georgian-style Irish coffee mugs. “We prepare the drink like a chef does food,” he says of the large-batch production. He likens the process to crafting the perfect bloody mary: “If you try to make just one glass, it’s hard to strike the perfect balance of all the flavors.”
All about logistics
Ferguson reiterates that it’s not a foolproof recipe. In fact, the bar manager calls it one of the more complicated cocktails she’s encountered. “Letting the fruits sit a while versus not letting them sit makes such a difference in the end product,” Ferguson says. “There’s a fine line where things go from fruity and light to dark and muddy.”
Two-year-old The Eleanor offered the cocktail last year as part of the nationwide pop-up holiday bar Miracle on 5th St., and staff took great care to serve it at just the right temperature. “No one is slamming a hot drink, so you need to give the guest ample time to enjoy it before it cools,” Ferguson says, noting that heat transfer is top-of-mind when prepping temperate cocktails. This meant that both the mug—a porcelain vessel shaped like a Santa head—and the premade mulled wine were given a hot water bath, garnished with a dehydrated orange wheel, and delivered promptly.
Was it worth the labor? “Oh man, we served so much of it,” Ferguson says. “It’s just delicious.”
She and Cobb credit the drink’s mass appeal for climbing sales. “People come in and tell me they don’t like wine. I pour them mulled wine and they love it,” Cobb says.
Beyond that, Simic adds that mulled wine is believed to foster health benefits, and people in the Balkans consume it to ward off illness. Who couldn’t use some extra germ-defense in the winter months? If nothing else, says Cobb, “It tastes like candy.”