Heating Spiced Wines and Beers in Britain

Early 1900s, mulled wine on the ski slopes

Early 1900s, German card, mulled wine on the ski slopes

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.

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Shared Traditions of Wassail and Punch

On Sunday 28th December 2014, my friend Joanna Crosby (who is working on her PhD on the social and cultural history of apples and the orchard, and who founded the Trumpington Community Orchard) was interviewed by Lucie Skeaping on BBC Radio 3’s Early Music Show in a programme called Here We Come a-Wassailing (no longer available). As Joanna recounted the history of the drink wassail, wassailing songs of each period were performed, such as Here We Come A-wassailing:

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.

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Rakomelo – a type of hot Greek punch

Last night I was serving up a hot Greek-style punch called rakomelo at a Christmas party hosted by a local Greek shop. Rakomelo is quite different to North European and American mulled wine, being more alcoholic (commercial ready-bottled brands need a minimum of 20% alcohol) and with little or no fruit, the honey and spice character more pronounced. Homemade rakomelo can be much stronger!


Different styles of ancient Greek kraters – the forerunner of the punch bowl?

serving wine Banquet_Louvre_Kylix_G133_by_Cage_Painter

A slave boy dipping a jug into a krater to fill up with wine to serve. (Louvre)

In ancient Greece, wine was diluted and cooled by being mixed with water, sweetened and spiced if necessary, and prepared in large kraters, before being served to guests from the krater.

The use of distilled alcohol did not begin to enter the repertoire of drinks until the late 13th century, and then primarily for medicinal purposes, and these drinks have survived as the sweet herb infused liqueurs originally made in monasteries.

Following the Fourth Crusade in 1205, the Franks and Venetians invaded Greece. The Franks remaining in control of the Peloponnese until 1430. Distillation of spirits was introduced, and, as elsewhere in Europe the spirits were mixed with existing medicinal drinks such as vrastari – an infusion of herbs and spices sweetened with honey, and a Rakomelo-style drink was created.

raki distillation

Distillation of raki

Rakomelo has remained a popular speciality on the Cyclades islands of Crete and Amorgos. In Crete, raki is called tsikoudia (the name raki, may refer to Iraq and may date to the Ottomans when they conquered Greece after the Franks).

Distilleries were encouraged by the Greek government in 1920, when special permits were given to farmers to distill raki for additional income. Raki is a neutral flavoured eau de vie made from the grape pomace, the residue from making wine, is distilled to form a clear spirit. Kazanemata, or cauldron feasts, are the harvest festivities which take place in Crete at the end of the wine fermentation when the raki is distilled.

Rakomelo is made by infusing the spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom, anise or pepper, and herbs, such as thyme, in honey (melo) and water to create a sweetened infusion, vrastari, before adding the raki. Psimeni raki uses sugar instead of honey, with more spices. Commercial versions include Mastihato (with mastic), Lemontelo (with lemon) and Portomelo (with orange).

Rakomelo is traditionally served hot during the winter and cold in summer.

The proportions, based on a single serving are:

  • 10cl of raki
  • 1 tablespoon of honey. Greek thyme honey gives a lovely flavour.
  • ½ a cinnamon stick
  • 1 clove

For a quicker version, put all the ingredients in a pan, then heat this slowly and gently. The rakomelo is ready to serve when the honey melts and steam starts to rise. If the drink is allowed to boil, some of the alcohol will evaporate. Before serving, remove the spices. (Using powdered spices will give a powdery deposit on the surface of the drink.)

As an alternative to more traditional mulled wine, I made a lighter, fruitier and less alcoholic rakomelo by adding the juice of half an orange for every 10cl of raki, a pinch of thyme and water to taste. To serve a crowd I multiplied the quantity and served this from a jug.The final taste was sweet, strong and spicy – with the thyme flavours giving an attractive balance to the sweetness of the honey.

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Although sometimes described as Greek or Raki punch, with its blend of sweet, strong and weak, it does not normally include include the citrus-acid element of punch.


Christmas punch and Charles Dickens

There are many traditions of Christmas punch in Europe, north America and south America, involving special ingredients for celebration and, in the northern hemisphere, an emphasis on a warming drink with symbolic flames for the darkest and coldest nights of the year.

The middle decades of the nineteenth century in Britain were the heyday of hot Christmas punch, popularized in fiction with descriptions of a white, snowy Christmas with familial cheer around a fire, and plentiful food and drink.  An 1826 nostalgic portrait of a country squire depicted him as celebrating feast days such as Christmas with ‘a bowl of strong brandy punch, garnished with a toast and nutmeg’ with neighbours ‘round a glowing fire, and told and heard the … tales of the village.’


Illustration by John Leech for the 1843 edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’ showing Scrooge serving steaming punch by the fire

In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) Scrooge ‘sees’ a vision of how Christmas should be, where the feast is topped by ‘seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.’ This novel had a major impact in both Britain and America on the Christmas image, with the feeling of good will to neighbours, bountiful feasts and, of course, the Christmas bowl of punch.

In 1847 Dickens gave his recipe for a flaming Christmas rum-based punch in a letter:

“To make three pints, take a strong, common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket) and in it place the finely sliced rinds of three lemons, a double-handful of sugar lumps, a pint of dark rum and a large wine glass of brandy. Set alight and allow to burn for three or four minutes (extinguish by covering with a lid). Add the juice of three lemons and a quart of boiling water. Stir, cover, leave for five minutes and stir again. Taste and sweeten if necessary, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour into an ovenproof jug or bowl and cover with a leather cloth* . Place in a hot oven for 10 minutes. Remove the lemon rind before serving.”

*Nowadays grease-proof paper could be used to replace the leather cloth.

Dickens’s reference to the punch taking on a sweeter taste is due to the burning of the alcohol. Depending on the length of time the drink is allowed to burn, this reduces the liquid content of the drink, concentrating the flavours to make the taste richer and deeper.

Mr Micawber Makes Punch

An illustration from Dickens’s ‘David Copperfield’ showing Mr Micawber making punch

Punch features again in Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850), in chapter 28 ‘Mr Micawber’s Gauntlet’ with this wonderful description of Mr Micawber forgetting his worries as he immerses himself in the making of a steaming bowl of rum punch.

“I never saw a man [Mr. Micawber] so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, ….”

In the novel Christmas at the Cross Keys (1853, by Keller Deene / Charlotte Smith), the Christmas punch is hot and included port, but was not flamed: ‘He put in port wine, lemons, sugar, brandy, spice, and rum, and hot water at discretion.’

But flaming punch was obviously a popular Christmas tradition, with Frenchman Louis Blanc writing in January 1863, of the opulence of an English Christmas at which was served ‘flaming bowls of punch.’