Mulled Wine, a Timeless Taste of the Divine?

Mulled Wine (Photo credt: )

“He has given us plenty of merriment, I am sure,” said Fred, “and it would be ungrateful not to drink his health. Here is a glass of mulled wine ready to our hand at the moment; and I say, ‘Uncle Scrooge’!”

“Well! Uncle Scrooge!” they cried.

“A Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to the old man, whatever he is!” said Scrooge’s nephew.

~~~ A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens ~~~

OK, blame it on Charles Dickens, that literary trendsetter who blazed the way for the Victorian Christmas.

It? Mulled wine. You know, that foul stuff Grandmother allowed in the house once a year, like Christmas, and most people considered that a blessing.

Like fruitcake,* mulled wine comes from entrenched and revered Tradition.

You’ll find early written recipes for mulled wine in sixteenth-century recipe books. But it’s likely that the practice of spicing and heating wine dates far back into the mists of history, as a way to rescue wine gone bad by heating it and spicing it up to hide the off tastes. Or maybe, just maybe, they LIKED it like that.

The Romans called it “Calida” or “Calda,” an eerily similar word to the Spanish word, “caldo,” or stock.

During the Middle Ages, some people named it Potus Ypocras or Hipocris after, yes, Hippocrates, the Greek Father of Medicine, because of the healthful properties of this ancient concoction. Since only poor people generally drank plain water, the mulled wine offered some assurance of status as well, not to mention the unmentionable: no diarrhea caused by bad water. Hopefully not, anyway.

In English dialect from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the word “mulled” meant “muddled” or “mixed up.” In earlier times, of course, ale, cider, perry, or mead stood in for wine. And probably tasted better.

One version of mulled wine, Lamb’s Wool, makes an appearance more as a potion served on Epiphany (January 6) and requires crushed baked-apple pulp, cream, egg yolks, and whipped egg whites. (It’s beginning to sound a little bit like eggnog, isn’t it? But it isn’t.)

Honoré Balzac, in The Peasants, captured a certain truth about the popularity of mulled wine:

In the Morvan and in that part of Bourgogne which lies at its foot on the Paris side, this mulled wine, which La Tonsard flung in Pere Fourchon’s face, is a rather dear beverage which plays a great part in the life of the peasants, and is prepared with more or less skill by grocers, or by keepers of cafes where cafes exist. This blessed beverage, compounded of choice wine, sugar, cinnamon, and other spices, is preferable to all the disguised or adulterated forms of eaude-vie known as ratafia, cent-sept-ans, eau-des-braves, cassis, vespltro, esprit-de-solril, etc. Mulled wine is found as far east as the boundary between France and Switzerland. In the Jura, in the wild regions to which some few enthusiastic tourists find their way, the innkeepers, on the word of travelling salesmen, give the name of Syracuse wine to that manufactured product, an excellent drink, by the way, for which you are delighted to pay three or four francs a bottle under the spur of the canine thirst caused by ascending mountain peaks. In the households of the Morvan and Bourgogne, the slightest twinge of pain, the most trivial shock to the nerves, is an excuse for a draught of mulled wine. The women, before, during, and after their confinement, take sugared toast with it. Mulled wine has devoured many peasant fortunes. More than once, too, the seductive fluid has necessitated marital chastisement.

Mulling Spices (Photo credit: Melissa Goodman)

And that holds true for other time periods and other places, too.

William Kitchiner wrote about mulling spices in The Cook’s Oracle (1823):

Essence of Allspice for mulling of Wine.—(No. 412.)

Oil of pimento, a drachm, apothecaries’ measure, strong spirit of wine, two ounces, mixed by degrees: a few drops will give the flavour of allspice to a pint of gravy, or mulled wine, or to make a bishop. Mulled wine made with Burgundy is called bishop; with old Rhenish wine, cardinal; and with Tokay, Pope. RITTER’S Weinlehres, p. 200.

Mrs. Isabella Beeton, that icon of English cookery, took a few liberties and “borrowed” recipes from Hannah Glasse and Eliza Acton. Her recipe for mulled wine doesn’t  include certain touches, like oranges, etc., suggested by Acton:**


INGREDIENTS.- To every pint of wine allow 1 large cupful of water, sugar and spice to taste.

Mode.-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 cleaned, 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 spoil the wine, by imparting to it a very disagreeable flavour. These warmers should be used for no other purpose.

Mulling Cone

As Beeton implies, one crucial piece of equipment that assisted the cook mulling the wine, or the cider, or the mead, was a “mulling cone.”

Numerous cookbook authors in the nineteenth century plagiarized Mrs. Beeton’s recipe for mulled wine, including Laura Simkins Fitchett. That lady’s Beverages and Sauces of Colonial Virginia, 1607 -1907 (1906) sports dozens of recipes with catchy names for alcohol-based drinks, like “Governor Berkeley’s Claret Cup”, most of which appear in Beeton’s best-selling Book of Household Management (1861). Fitchett’s recipe for “Mulled Wine” comes verbatim from Beeton’s book.***

Just goes to show you that maybe there never really has been anything new under the sun when it comes to food writing!

The big question, one you’re probably asking too, is how did poor peasants afford the spices necessary for a proper mulling? What was the role of the monasteries in all this mulling about? And there is another avenue to explore and that is the question of ritualized drunkenness in the apparent wild abandon of winter solstice celebrations.

Stay tuned …

*See also Nutty as a … and Fruitcake, Fermentation by Another Name.

**Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery in All its Branches … (1845):

(An excellent French Receipt.)

Boil in a wineglassful and a half of water, a quarter of an ounce of spice (cinnamon, ginger slightly bruised, and cloves), with three ounces of fine sugar, until they form a thick syrup, which must not on any account be allowed to burn. Pour in a pint of port wine, and stir it gently until it is on the point of boiling only: it should then be served immediately. The addition of a strip or two of orange-rind , cut extremely thin, gives to this beverage the flavour of bishop. In France light claret takes the place of port wine in making it, and the better kinds of vin ordinaire are very palatable thus prepared.

***On the plagiarizing of recipes, see Stephen Mennell, “Plagiarism and Originality – Diffusionism in the Study of the History of Cookery,” Petits Propos Culinaires 68: 29-38, 2001; and Jennifer Stead, “Quizzing Glasse: or Hannah Scrutinized,” Petits Propos Culinaires 13: 9-24 and 14: 17-30, 1983. Henry Notaker added his take on the subject in “Comments on the Interpretation of Plagiarism,”  Petits Propos Culinaires in the July 2002 issue.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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