Mulled wine, for many, sums up festive cheer and relaxing après-ski especially at Christmas. Hot spiced drinks have a long history; popular throughout Europe during the cold winter months since wine and beers were first made, especially before tea, coffee and hot chocolate were introduced. As mulled wine is defined by its being heated, I am here looking more closely at the process of heating.
Often in literature the mulled wine is simply ‘prepared’ with little reference as to how it is heated. The heat is important, and as Dicken’s reference to ‘Smoking Bishop’ (a type of mulled wine) in A Christmas Carol (1842) shows, the image of the steam from the hot wine is both cheerful and heart-warming.
The basic Roman recipe for hot wine, calda, simply added hot water, a method which remained as a ‘quick fix’ for hot wine until the nineteenth century. Richer recipes, such as that in Apicus, had wine sweetened with honey and spices. In Medieval times hot, spiced wines were called piment or hypocras; expensive ingredients of sugar, spices and wine made them the drink of the rich.
In Britain the word ‘mulled’ for heated drinks appeared in the early seventeenth century. In 1665 the word was familiar enough for Samuel Pepys to drink a draft of mulled sacke.
The heat was not necessarily gently applied, as early descriptions indicate that the drink was burnt by boiling hard and allowing the flavour to concentrate and the sugar become slightly caramelised. ‘Mulled Sack’ is described as vin d’Espagne brulé (1677) and ‘burnt and sugared’ (1717). In northern, mountainous, Italy, hot wine is still known as vin brulé. Most modern makers of mulled wine insist that the wine should never be boiled, even gently, as this will burn off the alcohol and remove the wine character. Vin cuit or ‘cooked wine’ is completely different.
Alternatively, a red-hot poker was plunged into the wine or beer, caramelising a small part of the drink and gently heating the rest without cooking. In 1695 a drink of sweetened beer and rum or brandy, heated with a poker was called flip. Confusingly, though drinks heated with a poker seem to be always called flip, there are recipes for flip heated in a pan.
Beers and ciders were also heated. Mulled ale was often served in inns and pubs, and was often heated in a copper or tin ale cone. The cone would be filled with the beer or cider, and the tip plunged into the fire. If agitated and replaced in the fire, the drink would gradually heat up.
The ale ‘slipper’, with its right-angle-to-the-cone container shaped like the tow of a shoe, worked in the same way, with the toe being placed in the fire. Charles Dickens, in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) describes a scene in which the beer is heated: ‘…the landlord retired to draw the beer, and presently returning with it, applied himself to warm the same in a small tin vessel shaped funnel-wise, for the convenience of sticking it far down in the fire and getting at the bright places. This was soon done, and he handed it over … with that creamy froth upon the surface which is one of the happy circumstances attendant upon mulled malt.’ This froth was apparently appreciated. A recipe for Glow-wine (Feuchtwanger, 1858) says ‘…after muddling the mixture to a thick froth, it is drank hot.’
When making mulled wine or beer in a saucepan, non-corrosive pans such as stainless-steel or enamel are recommended, as wine and fruit juice are corrosive. In the past silver or pottery pots were often recommended. The copper cones and slippers should only be used if lined, as copper used for hot drinks are not recommended. Mrs Beeton’s (1861) advice was that ‘The vessel that the wine is boiled in must be delicately clean and should be kept exclusively for the purpose. Small tin warmers may be purchased for a trifle, which are more suitable than saucepans, as, if the latter are not scrupulously clean, they will spoil the wine, by imparting to it a very disagreeable flavour. These warmers should be used for no other purpose.’
There are two methods for mulling.
The two part method, starts with a base syrup of water or wine, sugar and spices. For maximum flavour the spices are left to infuse in the syrup overnight before cooking. This ensures the sugar dissolves properly, without sinking to the bottom. This base can be stored and kept ready for making the mulled wine later on. The syrup base is heated up and the wine added as and when needed without being mulled for too long. As advised in ‘The Economical Housekeeper’ (Walsh, 1857): ‘To Mull Claret: Boil gently the sugar and spice in just enough wine for the purpose; then add the remainder, and boil as above for a second or two. Serve in silver.’
The quick and easy method puts all the ingredients into the pan together and simmers, without coming to the boil, for at least an hour. If making to be drunk over a long period of time such as a party or at a Christmas market, the taste profile and alcohol will change as wine continues to cook and reduce and is then topped up with fresh wine. At Christmas fairs I have seen large pots of wine heated for hours. It may taste nice but, by late in the day, it probably had very little alcohol left.
Mulling the wine will reduce its alcohol content, as alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. To limit the alcohol loss, a narrower pan should be used (to reduce the exposed surface area), with lid, and should not be heated for too long. One study of baking food found that an alcoholic mixture baked/simmered for one hour lost ¾ of its alcohol. To increase the level of alcohol, spirits such as rum and brandy can be added at the end of the mulling. If added too early, their high alcohol content will boil off quickly.
Sometimes the drinking cup itself was placed in the fire or embers. Thomas Hardy in Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) describes the window sill being ‘…curiously stamped with black circles, burnt thereon by the heated bottoms of drinking cups, which had rested there after previously standing on the hot ashes of the hearth for the purpose of warming their contents, the result giving to the ledge the look of an envelope which has passed through innumerable post-offices.’
As glassware can crack from sudden heat, care needs to be taken when serving mulled wine in glass. The liquid must not be too hot for the type of glass used, which means either using heat-resistant glass or allowing the liquid to cool sufficiently to suit the type of glass. Traditional mulled wine glasses have a handle or fit into a metal holder to make it easier to hold the hot drink.
Though punch and wassail are often served from bowls decorated for Christmas or with greenery for a wedding, mulled drinks are served direct from the pan or maybe decanted into a jug. ‘Serve it up hot in a pitcher with little glass cups round it’ suggests Eliza Leslie in Directions for Cookery (1840). Unlike the more theatrical punch, mulled drinks are not made at the table, nor is there ceremony and ritual in the making.
Though we often think of mulled wine as just being a ‘heated’ drink, there is more to it than this. The method chosen for mulling is an essential element, not just for the heating, but also for the infusing of the spices and can make as big an impact on the character of the mulled wine/beer as the choice of the base drinks (wine, beer and/or spirit), amount of sugar and type of spice. Whether simply diluted with hot water, boiled hard to reduce and caramelise or gently heated and simmered to allow the spices to infuse, the character of the drink, especially its alcohol level, will change.
So, next time you make mulled wine, remember that the way the drink is heated will make a difference!