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December 2005 Issue
by Robbin Orbison
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Ok, we all have to face the fact that winter is upon us. We have snow to shovel, and antifreeze to buy, and crowds of shoppers to fight in stores, and winter clothes to search for way in the back of our closets. Why can’t we just enjoy the season without all these annoyances? Well, maybe we can’t make the annoyances go away, but we can definitely take the sting out of them. How, you ask? Why, with a wonderful warm holiday beverage of course! A delightful thing to have occurred in winters past is that somewhere along the line people started heating up their potent potables, and passed down a wealth of recipes to those of us in need here in the harried 21st century.

There are literally thousands of recipes for warm winter libations but most fall into two broad categories – mulled drinks and toddies. Both involve heating wine and/or spirits and adding sweeteners and other flavors. The difference seems to have less to do with ingredients (either can have endless variations) than with the strength of the alcoholic beverage and the process used for heating. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, people have been doing this kind of thing to alcohol for about 7,000 years. It happened in many cultures, for numerous reasons ranging from medicine to preservation to just plain taste. Today we usually do it to celebrate, to warm not just our bodies but to enhance the warmth of sharing special occasions with the people we love.

Mulling

We’ll talk about mulling first. To mull something simply means to heat it and add spices and sweeteners. Classic things to mull are cider and red wine, although white wine and a variety of other beverages are sometimes used. Mulled drinks are typically made by simmering the non-alcoholic ingredients together for a short time, then adding the alcohol and heating it slowly. Here is a base recipe for mulled wine:

 

Base Mulled Wine Recipe

  • 1 bottle red wine -- Any kind of wine will do. Heartier, fruitier wines like zinfandels, cabernets or merlots tend to work best. But the only real rule is the same as the rule for choosing wines to cook with – never use anything you wouldn’t drink otherwise.
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ cup sweetener -- Sugar is the sweetener most commonly found in mulled wine recipes, but you can use any sweetener you like, including honey, maple syrup or maple sugar. Some recipes omit the water and substitute ½ cup of sweet fruit juice, such as pineapple, or an herbal or citrus tea to add sweetness, but this didn’t work well in our taste tests.
  • 1-2 oranges and/or lemons, zest and fruit (optional) -- When using fruit zest avoid the bitter white pith.
  • 1-2 tbsp mulling spices -- Mulling spices almost always include cinnamon and cloves. Others that are common include allspice, nutmeg, mace, cardamom and star anise. Quantities can vary dramatically but if you keep total spices to 1-2 tablespoons it’s difficult to over or under-spice your wine. The important thing is that the spices need to be whole. Ground spices will cause your wine to have an unpleasant taste and texture.
Place water, sweetener, spices and fruit zest in a pot (do not use aluminum or copper in any of these recipes) and simmer gently for about 5 minutes to blend flavors. Reduce heat to lowest possible and add wine. Heat for about 30 minutes without boiling. This is the most important part of the process. If the wine boils it will kill the flavors and the alcohol will burn off. Watch it closely and remove from heat occasionally if necessary. Strain out the spices and then add the fruit at the end. Serve in mugs or glasses with some fruit floating on top and a garnish of cinnamon stick.
  • Yields: 4 to 8 servings depending on your pour
 

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