A cozy evening with family and friends—preferably around a cheery fire—begs a nice, hot spiced cider, wine, or tea!
Mulling is easy, and because the spices are potent, you don’t need a high-quality base. Rather, a cheap wine or any strong tea or some inexpensive cider will be fine.
Simply throw in mulling spices, heat it all up, and be the hit of the evening—while continuing the deep history of spiced beverages.
Party like the Canaanites
So far, the oldest trace of actual mulled wine comes from the wine cellar of a 1700 BCE palace in northern Israel.
Analyzing residues, archaeologists have determined that Canaanite revelers quaffed red and white wine spiked with honey, mint, juniper berries, resins, and cinnamon bark, a concoction similar to an Egyptian medicinal wine, which often contained herbs, resin, and figs according to extant cuneiform.
Yet the Egyptians themselves were only building on wine production that had been established by the Mesopotamians as early as 6000 BCE. Wine was, after all, a better option than the often-contaminated water of the time, plus it supplied needed calories.
Archaeologists noted that the Canaanite wine:
probably tasted similar to retsina, a Greek white resinated wine which has been made for at least 2000 years and is described as having the flavor of turpentine and pine trees. (Antiquity Now 12/3/2013)
Notwithstanding its toxic solvent-like taste, wine was part of the Greek lifestyle, and the Romans not only learned from them, but set about improving the wine-making process and expanding the options, especially as the Silk Road meant a greater choice of spices.
And, like today, adding spices and herbs turned bad or weak wine into something palatable and even delicious—an economic incentive that transcends time!
Making Merry in the Middle Ages
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europeans of the Middle Ages remained enamored with spices and embraced mulled wine, considering it a medicinal drink—which of course it was when compared to their other choices, especially the water that could well kill them!
In addition to spiced wine, there was 13th-century wassail (spiced ale or beer) and there was posset (hot milk with alcohol, sugar, eggs, cinnamon, and nutmeg, much like today’s eggnog). In Germany, mulled wine became glühwein while in Scandinavia spirits were added to make gløgg.
Spices became associated with the Christmas season for multiple reasons. At the time when spices were costly and difficult to obtain, they would be used only for special occasions, such as weddings and holidays, thus launching new traditions.
When ginger reached Northern Europe in the 11th century, Germans found that honey-based gingerbread (Lebkuchen) was a forgiving dough that could be baked in various types of ovens and it soon became associated with Christmas. By the 1600s, Nuremberg was the “gingerbread capital of the world” with a guild of master bakers and artisans that created gingerbread art, and when the Dutch came to America in the early 1600s, they brought “Christmas cookies” with them.
Skirting the Victorian Mindset
Culture plays a huge part in establishing any tradition, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol wrote mulled wine into the Christmas repertoire despite the fact that the British Association for the Promotion of Temperance had already been founded.
I know that I’ve read right over Dickens’ mention of this—at least to me—unfamiliar drink; it appears in the passage in which Scrooge addresses his previous wrongs to Bob Cratchit:
“A merry Christmas, Bob! . . . A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss you affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!” (Dickens 1843)
Rosie Schaap of New York Times Cooking gives her version of the smoking bishop, which she adapted from Dickens’ great-grandson’s recipe in his book Drinking with Dickens.
She explains that you heat the wine and spices until vapors rise or the wine “smokes,” while according to Tori Avey, the “bishop” might refer to the serving bowl that apparently resembled the miter (headdress) worn by bishops.
Making Your Own Mulled Wine and Tea
Glühwein continues to be popular in German-inspired December open-air markets, and its warmth is especially appreciated on a frigid evening!
But there’s no need to hazard the cold air! You can quickly and easily make your own mulled beverage, especially if you purchase a mulled spices blend, like this aromatic one from TeaHaus in Ann Arbor, which contains cinnamon pieces, orange and lemon peel, star anise, anise, fennel, and cloves.
To make Glühwein:
- Combine a standard bottle of inexpensive red wine (750 ml), 1/2 cup sugar, 8 heaping teaspoons of mulled wine spices, and orange slices (optional).
- Heat, just below a simmer, for 10 to 20 minutes.
- Strain out the spices and enjoy!
To make mulled cider, I simply throw some mulled spices into cider and heat it for awhile.
For mulled tea, I simmered water with mulling spices for about 20 minutes, and then used that water to brew a hearty CTC breakfast tea, O’Sullivan’s Favorite from TeaHaus.
And enjoyed, accompanied by Lebkuchen!
–Avey, T., “Drinking with Charles Dickens—The smoking bishop,” 10/1/2018.
–”Bon appetit Wednesday! Imperial Roman honey-spiced wine,” Antiquity Now, 12/4/2013.
–”Raise a glass to ancient Canaanite wine lovers,” Antiquity Now, 12/3/2013.
–Dickens, C., A Christmas Carol, reprint, Otter Books, Boston, 1991.