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It’s Christmas Eve. You’ve got an extra-long stocking hooked up above a roaring fire, and a plate of mince pies just waiting to be demolished. Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody is stomping on your ear drums. But there’s something missing. Something hot. Something spicy. Something preferably alcoholic. That’s right, you need a mulled drink. For many, mulled drinks are as big a part of Christmas as stuffing the turkey or having a full-scale family argument. Boiled down to its bare essentials, a mulled drink is hot, usually alcoholic and flavored with fruit, sugar and spices. But there are as many variations of mulled winter drinks as there are Santa Clauses. And there’s just as much debate as to which is the real deal. Here’s a few to put some Christmas color in your cheeks.
The global rise of the German Christmas market has prompted a revival in glühwein or mulled wine - usually a combination of red wine, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, ginger, caster sugar and citrus fruit. Glühwein means ‘glow wine’, in reference to the red hot poker traditionally used to heat the drink. It has its roots in ancient Rome, and a medicinal spiced wine called Hippocras, named after a filtration method invented by the Greek physician Hippocrates. Cynics say the spices are a convenient way of masking the unpalatable tang of cheap or stale wine, but when made with a decent splash of red, glühwein can be a delightfully warming festive tipple on a cold northern European winter’s night. For an extra Christmas zing, try Feuerzangenbowle - or ‘fire tongs punch’ - which involves mulled wine laced with rum, and a flambéed sugarloaf.
Mulled wine was a popular Christmas drink in Victorian Britain - it’s mentioned by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, ‘mulled’ being an old English word meaning ‘muddled’. But for some, the true traditional mulled drink of England is wassail. This hot cider tipple originated in the apple orchards of south west England, and got its name from the ancient wassailing ritual, which involved drinking to the good health and fecundity of apple trees in winter. Wassailing eventually extended to people, and a Christmas tradition was born. Pour a nice, flat, cloudy English scrumpy cider (or fresh apple juice for a non-alcoholic version) into a saucepan, add cloves and cinnamon sticks and bring slowly to a simmer, before throwing in some fresh orange slices and serving in a tankard.
Glögg (pronounced “glug”) is the Scandinavian version of glühwein, but with a certain Nordic twist. It was apparently enjoyed by King Gustav I of Sweden in the sixteenth century, but many different variations have emerged over the years. The traditional mulled wine formula of red wine and spices can be emboldened with port, cognac, sherry or even vodka, flavoured with vanilla pods and served with raisins and bitter almonds. In Sweden, it’s common to take glögg with ginger bread biscuits, while in Norway it’s considered a fine accompaniment to rice pudding. And if there’s any leftover glögg, it makes an excellent marinade for game.
The Japanese have long known that gently warming sake - or Japanese rice wine - can rejuvenate its complex scents and flavours. Kan-zake or warm sake can be prepared by submerging a traditional sake decanter in hot water until it has reached the desired temperature (no more than 55 degrees Celsius). O-toso is a special sake, traditionally taken at New Year to ward off illness and evil spirits. It is sometimes made with mirin (sweet sake), and infused with a blend of medicinal spices called tososan, which includes cinnamon and dried ginger.
The British are known for their tepid ale, but there was a time when beer would be served piping hot in pubs. Not only was it a welcome drink on a cold day, but some regarded hot beer as healthy and a good aid to digestion. Mulled beer might involve the addition of sugar or honey, a range of spices and sometimes even raw eggs. When brandy or rum was added it was called flip, and the drink became associated with bawdy types and the lower orders. Today’s civilised version might involve a good English brown ale, cinnamon, cloves, mace and a big dollop of honey. Cheers!
You can’t keep the Brazilians away from the mulled drinks party (or any party), but be warned, this one packs a punch. Quentão (or the ‘big hot one’) is based around the Brazilian sugarcane spirit cachaça, and is traditionally enjoyed during the annual Festa Junina celebration. Brown sugar is caramelised in a saucepan before water is added, along with cinnamon sticks, fresh ginger and slices of lime. A healthy glug of cachaça goes in at the end to provide a kick that keeps kicking.