A Brief History Of Mulled Wine
Mulled wine just sounds medieval, right? Like the next thing you’ll be doing is a’ wassailing and singing heartily about Good King Wenceslas.
But although the toasty, red wine-based beverage has been associated with Christmas in more modern times, it actually predates the Middle Ages by a few centuries. The first references to warming – aka mulling – a flavored alcoholic drink can be found throughout 2nd-century Rome, when soldiers conquering Europe sampled the spices they’d obtained in trade along the way by steeping them with their ever-expanding wine stashes.
Instead of heating the mulling wine over fire in a pot, though, the Romans simply dipped red-hot irons right into their mugs.
Early recipes – including one from a cookbook published in 1390 – list cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, mace, marjoram, cardamom and galangal (a ginger-like stem), and copious amounts of sugar. Later versions added the juice and peel of oranges and lemons, fennel, star anise, vanilla, raisins, and sometimes even a little brandy for extra oomph.
Instead of heating the mulling wine over fire in a pot, though, the Romans simply dipped red-hot irons right into their mugs. This led to the German version called Glüwein, or “glow wine,” which has become a go-to for Europeans après ski, as well as the similarly popular glögg in the Scandinavian countries, where the beverage is also made using vodka or the already-spicy aquavit and is served with raisins, nuts and gingersnap cookies.
In present-day Britain, mulled wine starts as a fall bevy, ideal for counteracting cooling temperatures and a calming companion to the autumnal urge to nest. Contemporary recipes call for more elaborate garnishes and prettier presentations: glass mugs, cinnamon sticks as stirrers, orange slices studded with whole cloves to float on top.
So what about the idea that the alcohol cooks off when you heat it – does that mean you won’t get tipsy from mulled wine? The answer is that there definitely will be some alcohol left, but the amount depends on cooking times. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 20 to 25 percent of the alcohol is retained after an hour to an hour and a half of steady simmering, but after only 20 minutes – the minimum recommended for a good mull – you’re looking at 35-40 percent of the alcohol remaining.
That’s still less than 100 percent, though, and thus mulled wine can be a good choice if you’re looking for an intensely flavored drink with a little less buzz. And if you don’t want any alcohol at all, a mulled drink can be made using fruit juice and the same spices.
Either way, this comforting elixir tastes like Christmas in a cup, and its festive flavors and rich history make it a top tipple for toasting … anytime.