Over the past few years, I’ve become the Mulled Wine Gal in our various social circles. I’d never even had mulled wine before a pal made it for a New Year’s Eve party in like 2006, but I’ve been obsessed with making (and perfecting) it every chilly season since. With any new obsession comes experimentation, and of course, many failures along with the successes. Let me share with you my tricks and pitfalls so you can mull the best wine ever.
Basic mulled wine goes like this:
Put dry red wine, spices, and sweetener in a pot. Simmer. Drink.
I don’t think I’ve ever once followed an actual recipe for making mulled wine. You needn’t either. Oh, if you’re a recipe kind of person I can understand that, but really you should just make an excuse to taste it from time to time until it tastes yummy. So, rather than giving you a step by step, let me give you a concept by concept!
Use cheap wine. The kind you might actually be embarrassed to serve otherwise. The best you can do is buy dark dry red wines in boxes; that way, the unused stuff stays fresher all season long. Something from Franzia will suit your purposes just fine. Fancier vintages are great for actual red wine drinking, but with mulling you really can’t taste the delicate fruity notes of blah blah whatever under all the many spices and sweeteners you’ll be adding, so save your fancy bottles. Any richer varietals (Syrah/Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, etc.) are fine. The lighter Pinot Noirs and Beaujolais Nouveaux are for drinking with dinner; they’re not so mulling friendly. Go big, bold, dry, dark, and CHEAP. If you wind up buying bottles instead of boxes, that’s fine, but you may prefer boxes because…
Save some un-mulled wine for dilution. Don’t make my usual mistake and empty every drop into the pot. It’s easy to over-mull your wine accidentally, because mulled wine is inherently a party drink that you leave simmering and kinda forget about. This means that while you were busy hosting guests, much of the alcohol boiled right off of that simmering pot on the stove. So save about a quarter of that unmulled stuff to dilute down the mixture when it comes time to serve. (Besides, you may have the odd friend who just prefers a plain ole glass of red, but doesn’t want to make you open up a decent bottle for just the one glass. Let that poor fool have his Franzia ration if he’s so insistent.)
Pick the right mulling spices. You don’t have to make your own spice mix if you’re super busy or just not a fancypants DIY person; there are tons of pre-made options to choose from. If you live somewhere with a kinda hippie grocery store that has a bulk foods section, you can ask for mulling spices starting in about October. They’re often stored in somewhat elusive places, so don’t be shy about bugging a clerk.
And of course, you can always make your own. The main components of a good mulling spice are cloves, cinnamon, orange peel, and allspice. I’ve also seen blends that include ginger, nutmeg, lemon peel, black peppercorns, and star anise, and I’ve actually tried mulling with a chai spice blend that also included cardamom pods. (Not totally worth it, in my opinion, but you might like it.) I also enjoy the odd vanilla bean husk, but you shouldn’t waste actual vanilla bean caviar on this—it’ll be kinda overpowering and no one likes the seedy texture anyway. When you use real vanilla bean for some other fancy dessert, save the husks in an airtight container for something like this, and only use one husk per mulling.
I find that citrus peel can start to make the wine go a bit bitter if you over-mull as you probably will, and clove can become overpowering and mouth-numbing very quickly. So if you’re one of those Perfect Pinterest People and you decide to create your own spice mix, I believe the perfect hierarchy to strive for is cinnamon bark, then allspice, then star anise, then citrus peel, then cloves, then any other spices your little heart desires.
I suppose you have to figure out what to do with all these loose spices. I often just use a piece of cheesecloth tied up with twine, if I’m together enough to have both in stock. You could get fancy spice bags, too. But I’ve also been exposed to enough snooty tea-drinking behavior (I mean, I AM half English) to have plenty of strainer options. Even if you don’t use a tea strainer type device, you can just use a soup skimmer, or one of those handy funnels with a built in strainer that I’m always telling you to buy. Or, you know, just ladle around the loose spices and don’t sweat it. Have another drink.
If you’re not a DIYer and you don’t have a hippie option, have no fear! Chainier stores like Safeway and Kroger will start stocking mulling spices from Big Cider (haha) made by Martinelli’s or R.W. Knudsen. They look like tea bags, and they’re actually way easier to use than the fancier loose spice types. The box of mulling spices from Martinelli’s or R.W. Knudsen’s (pictured here) should look more like this. It should be clear on the ingredient list that it contains only spices, and not anything attempting to approximate either apples or actual cider.
And I hate to call Grant out here, but just in case you happen to have a grocery shopper who is only Level 2 or so in your household, visual aids can be helpful. This first image of Alpine SpiceD apple Cider Original Instant Drink Mix Natural & Artificial Flavors is NOT mulling spices. I provide this only as a visual to know what to avoid (but I include an affiliate link because hey, ya never know. Half the commenters on this blog seem to believe I’m super interested in buying Russian knockoff sneakers. Click away, my pals.)
Sweeten creatively. I remember a few years ago reading a GOOP newsletter (to which I subscribe mainly for comedic mockery purposes) with a mulled wine recipe, in which Gwyneth Paltrow harped on how terrible she felt just pouring loads of sugar into mulled wine. So she recommended agave nectar instead. Here’s the deal: the new rage of Snooty Sugar Science™ actually says agave is not so great, because it’s basically processed as all fructose, aka all totally high glycemic and fattening. JOKE’S ON YOU, GOOP!
As for us non-lifestyle-brand-owning regulars, we can get away with whatever sweeteners exist in our cupboards at the time of the mulling. Since I usually have all this stuff on hand somewhere, I like to use a combination of organic maple syrup (grade B, please, ALWAYS), brown sugar (or white plus a tad of molasses if that’s what you have around), honey, and (raw, organic, darker) agave, and maybe some of this coconut palm sugar craziness I just learned about but have yet to try out. A combo of different sweetening sources is almost always richer and more complex tasting than just straight up white sugar; THAT part Gwynnie was right about. Just don’t use anything diet-y like Splenda or NutraSweet or Stevia. Those are not going to play nice with everything else going on; suck it up and have a few actual calories.
As for how much to put in, I really swear you should just wing it. Scoop out a spoonful of honey, stir it in, let it melt, stir the mixture, take a little sip. Still kinda bitter? Pour in a tablespoon or so of maple syrup. Stir and taste. Still kinda bitter? Repeat with different sweeteners you have around until it starts tasting just a little sweet. Then STOP. People can further sweeten their individual glasses if they want it sweeter, but you can’t UN-sweeten an over-sweet batch, so be conservative. And maybe put out a little pitcher of maple syrup (the fastest to melt) with some spoons to stir it in if you think your folks will be into that.
Oh, and re: that honey we talked about: don’t use up the fancy nice awesome raw stuff you got at the farmers’ market from local wildflowers to combat your seasonal allergies in this drink. I mean, you CAN, but that expensive raw stuff is loaded with antimicrobial and general health-promoting benefits that’ll be totally annihilated by the heat, the cloves, and the alcohol of a pot of mulled wine. Honey’s health boost is zapped at about 120 degrees Farenheit (so says the weird bee guy at my far-mar). This is the opportunity to use up that lame stuff someone bought at the supermarket in a plastic squeezy bear.
Here’s my last sweetener note: the most yummy yet affordable maple syrup is the organic grade B from Trader Joe’s in a glass bottle; the next best is organic grade B from Whole Foods in a big beige plastic tub. Don’t get suckered into spending $15 for a normal-sized bottle unless it’s a delightful souvenir from your Vermont or Canadian vacation, and don’t buy grade A thinking it’s better. It’s not. You want the darker color and fuller flavor of B. Their system has it all wrong. Don’t get me started. :) And if you would even consider buying vats of colored corn syrup known as Log Cabin or Mrs. Butterworth’s, I have no idea why you’re still reading this blog post. Onward!
Buy extra-long cinnamon sticks for garnish. Most normal cinnamon sticks are cut down to fit in standard spice jars, which means they’re worthless for a cute stirring-stick because they get completely submerged in the beverage. But if you go to your local fancypants spice retailer (I like Market Spice), you can probably get extra long ones. Yeah, they’re a little pricey, but they’re cheaper than plenty of other types of fancy drink garnishes and they keep forever. (They needn’t be super duper fresh because your actual fresher mulling spice mix will be what really gives the wine a cinnamon flavor. These tend to be more for utterly delighting your guests than for flavor, although they do up the cinnamon ante a bit.)
Spike with style. There’s nothing sadder than taking all this yummy, well-spiced, well-sweetened stuff and ruining it with a splash of cheap brandy. If you decide to give your mulled wine a little oomph, go for decent cognac. Some people swear by Hennesey or Courvoisier; I’m more of a Rémy Martin VSOP gal myself.* Nothing crazily expensive, but don’t go buying the cheapest option. And by the way, don’t feel like too much of a heathen for spiking—a lot of what evaporates during the mulling process is alcohol, so you’re sort of reconstituting the wine’s original potency more than you are emulating Don Draper. Mostly. Spike with a light hand. :) I prefer to leave the whole vat un-spiked and let individuals liven up their own glasses with their desired cognac serving, but if you’d rather DIY, you can ask per glass if people want a shot in there, or whatever floats your boat. I often have a range of guests including nursing mamas who are happy for milder alcohol content, and sleep-deprived dads who beg for double the VSOP, haha. Use your best judgment; they’re your guests!
Be smart about your vessel choice. The first mulled wine I ever had was served to me in a wine glass, but it wasn’t a dinky dainty crystal one. It was a hefty restaurant-grade one. Which is a darn good thing, because scalding hot wine in a slightly chilly thin crystal glass just might break it, AND be uncomfortable to grasp, ya know? The main thing to remember is that, with all hot beverages, a handle or stem is pretty nice to have. You can always do mugs, but I find it so pretty to look at that I prefer a transparent container. Glass mugs would be great; we don’t have normal ones but we sometimes use glass beer steins. (Those are so tall that even extra-long cinnamon sticks would get submerged.) We have these cool double-walled Bodum cups that work, except they’re small so I always go for many refills, haha. I have these great thick glass goblets with a bee pattern that I sometimes use. Whatever you choose, just be kind about not burning your guests’ hands.
Oh, and you inevitably get sticky wine all over the damn place when ladling it out of the pot, no matter how careful you are. (I hate you if this is untrue in your case.) I don’t yet have a perfect solution to this, but sometimes I use a wide-mouth funnel on top of a mug, or I even pour the wine into a pitcher and serve each glass from that. No solution is perfect, because it cools quite a bit the more you transfer it, but play around until you find a good solution. Mine is a damp rag next to the mulling pot so I can wipe off any sticky residue before handing guests their drink. :)
Save any leftovers for a couple weeks! The spices you’ve used for mulling all have anti-microbial properties. This stuff will store for a while; I like to use a glass Mason jar with a firm lid, or a glass water bottle. Next time you want to mull up some wine for a group, pour that in as your starter and you’ll barely need any spices or mulling time to whip up a new batch! (And hey, if you’re the insanely eco-conscious type, you could even empty any half-drunk glasses into your Mason jar. You’ll be boiling any germs anyhow next time you mull. I think it’s kinda icky, and I have too many germophobic friends to roll like this myself, but I won’t judge you if you promise not to tell me about it.)
If you don’t have very much to save, use old condiment jars so you can look like a creepy vampire who stores human blood snacks in her fridge. It IS a Halloween-appropriate beverage, after all.
*I’ve heard of people spiking with apple or cherry brandies, but that doesn’t taste right to me. Those seem better placed in a spiked mulled cider. (But personally, I prefer even cider with a nice cognac.) And I’ve also wondered how it would taste to spike with Dubonnet Rouge. But I’ve never actually tried it.