We drink it every Christmas (in fact, I’ve already been glugging away at it over this last weekend!), and many of us see it as an integral part of a ‘traditional’ festive celebration. These days, you can even buy it ready-made in most supermarkets – although it really does taste much nicer if you make it from scratch (see below for some easy recipes to try).
We all know that it’s a spicy and warming seasonal tipple, but what exactly is mulled wine? Where does it come from? How ‘traditional’ is it? Has the recipe changed over time? And, more precisely, what on earth is ‘mulling’ when it’s at home anyway?
Put very simply, to ‘mull’ wine means to heat and spice it, often adding fruit to the mixture too. This process infuses the wine with the spice (and fruit) flavours, giving it that familiar warming kick. Other alcoholic drinks can also be mulled, including cider, mead, ale and brandy, as well as fruit juices.
Variations on this theme of adding spice to booze have been popular for centuries in many European countries, and there are historical records of a number of old English recipes for mulled wine – some of which date back as far as the fourteenth century, although these recipes were almost certainly very old even then.
Here’s a modern translation of a medieval recipe for Potus Ypocras, found on the fascinating Gode Cookery website. This is a version of mulled wine probably named for Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine – hence the Hippocratic Oath still taken by doctors today:
Hipocras Drink. Take a half lb. of cinnamon; of ginger, a half lb.; of grains of paradise, 2 ounces; of long pepper, 3 ounces; of cloves, 2 ounces; of nutmeg, 2 ounces and a half; of caraway, 2 ounces; of spikenard, a half ounce; of galingale, 2 ounces; of sugar, 2 lb. If there is no sugar, use 2 quarts of honey
You might have noticed that the recipe doesn’t specify how much wine you would need – but going by the amounts listed for the spices, I suspect it would have been more than enough for quite a large Christmas party! This was quite a common tactic in medieval recipes, with the writer assuming the cook would know exactly how much of this most important ingredient to use.
Most of the spices in this recipe are familiar to us, but there are also one or two exotic-sounding ingredients here. For example, long pepper is actually a very specific type of peppercorn with a fiery flavour from the Far East. Spikenard also comes from afar, being the aromatic root of a plant from India. Like many spices, spikenard was very expensive, making it a real Christmas luxury only used by the wealthy.
Why might this drink be named after Hippocrates? Actually, the explanation makes a lot of sense, since he would have prescribed and made wine-based remedies using herbs and spices, which would then be sweetened with honey – you could say that this makes one sort of mulled wine extremely ancient indeed!
As with today’s recipes, there was much variation among medieval mulled wines. This version also dates from the fourteenth century, and was known as Clarrey. Unusually, this recipe uses white wine rather than the more usual red – although the word ‘Clarrey’ (taken from the Latin vinum claratum, or ‘clarified wine’) actually still survives in the form of ‘Claret’, which, oddly enough, refers instead to a red wine:
Claret. Take cinnamon & galingale, grains of paradise, and a little pepper, & make powder, & mix it with good white wine & the third part honey & run it through a cloth.
Although very short and to the point, this recipe is a little more helpful than the last, as it lists the relevant cooking methods – although it specifies no amounts at all, which suggests the medieval writer of this recipe was very familiar with making it!
Again, you’ll see some unusual ingredients listed here. Galingale is from Southeast Asia and is a peppery rhizome similar in flavour to ginger. It is still used as a seasoning in modern Thai cuisine.
The fabulously-named grains of paradise come from West Africa, and have an unusual taste described as similar to pepper, cardamom, coriander and ginger. They appear to have been used in Europe for over a thousand years, and remain in use to this day in North African food.
The use of such spices in both of these fourteenth century recipes, exotic though they are to us even today, shows that medieval food and drink wasn’t necessarily as boring as we might expect – particularly at times of feasting, like Christmas.
Moving forward a few centuries, we find the legendary Victorian cookery and household writer Mrs Beeton giving us her take on mulled wine:
To every pint of wine allow 1 large cupful of water, sugar and spice to taste. In making preparations like the above, it is very difficult to give the exact proportions of ingredients like sugar and spice, as what quantity might suit one person would be to another quite distasteful.
Boil the spice in the water until the flavour is extracted, then add the wine and sugar, and bring the whole to the boiling-point, when serve with strips of crisp dry toast, or with biscuits.
The spices usually used for mulled wine are cloves, grated nutmeg, and cinnamon or mace. Any kind of wine may be mulled, but port and claret are those usually selected for the purpose; and the latter requires a very large proportion of sugar.
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 purposes.
Unsurprisingly, this recipe is much more like a modern one, with detailed directions (although it’s a bit vague about amounts and timings too!). Despite being a little less precise than would be recommended by modern cookery writers, it is not surprising that the Victorian era gave us such a very familiar-sounding mulled wine recipe – it is they who gave us what we now see as a ‘traditional’ Christmas with all the ‘traditional’ trimmings.
I love the little bits of advice Mrs Beeton gives in her recipe about the right pans to use, how they should be cleaned and what to serve with the finished product (it all sounds very Victorian indeed) – although she does make the whole mulled wine process sound like a bit of a faff as a result; which it actually isn’t, as you can see from the modern recipes below…
As an alternative to mulled wine, mulled cider in particular has become a fashionable seasonal drink in recent years. You could even make this recipe with apple juice instead of cider as a Christmassy treat for designated drivers, non-drinkers and the junior members of your household:
You will need:
3½pts/2ltrs dry cider or fresh apple juice
2 apples studded with cloves
4-6 cinnamon sticks
5-6 allspice berries
Zest of 1 orange
Dark rum (optional – omit if you’re making the non-alcoholic version)
Slices of apple for garnish
1) Put all the ingredients into a large saucepan.
2) Mix them together.
3) Simmer gently for half an hour, making sure you don’t let the mixture boil.
4) Carefully transfer the mixture into a heatproof bowl and ladle into glass mugs.
5) Add apple slices as a garnish.
To finish with, here’s a modern recipe for mulled wine – originally from the BBC Food website – with an optional (and traditionally British – but still unusual) twist. However, you can also clearly see that – give or take a few spices and changes in tastes – the basic recipe has changed little since medieval times:
You will need:
1 bottle red wine
60g/2oz Demerara sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 orange, halved
1 dried bay leaf
60ml/2fl oz sloe or damson gin (optional)
1) Put a large saucepan on the hob and pour in the wine.
2) Add the orange, sugar, bayleaf and the spices to the wine.
3) Heat gently on a fairly low light until the sugar dissolves.
4) Taste and add more sugar if necessary.
5) Remove from the heat and add the sloe/damson gin (if using).
6) Strain the liquid into heatproof glasses.
7) Serve immediately (with a selection of festive munchies for preference!)