Spice Up the Night


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On chilly days, is there anything like having a pot of mulled wine on the stove? The combination of aromatic baking spices and promise of a warming drink sets an instantly cozy stage.

The practice of doctoring up wine with spices has been around for, well, as long as wine has been around. References to the custom can be found in ancient Greek and Roman texts, and various versions can be found across many cultures: Glüwein in Germany, Gløgg in Norway.

For spice expert Claire Cheney, owner of Boston’s acclaimed Curio Spice Co. (curiospice.com), history and tradition are a big part of the attraction to mulled wine. Cheney, who has worked under James Beard award winning-chef Ana Sortun of Oleana, says she “imagines it was an incredible luxury [in Ancient Roman times] considering the high value of spices.”

But the flavor is a big draw for her too. “I also love the aroma—the combination of citrus and warm, sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves is energizing and soothing at once,” she says.

For the DIY averse, Cheney makes a few different blends of mulling spices for either cider or wine in her store, each with a special twist. The “Flame” blend goes beyond the traditional assortment of spices with the addition of ginger and chiles. “It makes your mouth tingle a bit, which is exciting,” she says.

For a gentler experience, the “Botanist” blend contains an unusual mix of rose, chamomile and grapefruit. “I imagined [it] as one that an old English horticulturalist might make on a very cold night when she is up late sorting specimens for her herbarium,” says Cheney of her inspiration, which she likes on especially cold days because the blend reminds her of summer. She recommends pairing it with a sweet white wine, “particularly one with strong fruit notes.”

To make your own blend at home, don’t be afraid to get creative. Start with the wine: you can choose a fruity red wine, white wine, or even cider. For citrus, think beyond navel oranges to tangerines, blood oranges, or clementines. If you look around your spice rack, you should find plenty of options beyond cinnamon sticks to give your recipe a signature stamp; think star anise or cardamom for a chai-style spin.

Cheney recommends using with whole spices, not ground, and finding a balance between bright and fresh spices, such as coriander or citrus peel, and the sweet, pungent spices used in baking, such as cinnamon or nutmeg. “You can add depth and dimension from any variety of other spices such as peppercorns, chilies, herbs—even coffee—but I’d avoid using any sulfurous spices like garlic, onions, or mustard,” says Cheney.

Many recipes also call for the addition of a hard spirit after the wine has been infused and taken off the heat. That’s an optional take—you definitely don’t need it to get the full mulled wine experience, but the extra alcohol can also bring a new dimension to the drink. Tawny port will add a rich sweet finish. Brandy should be fairly neutralish, but can bump up the alcoholic content when a more boozy experience is called for. A berry cassis will add a sweet warmth.

And when it’s time to serve mulled wine or cider to guests, don’t forget a pretty garnish. Think edible flowers, fresh citrus slices, tiny lady apples, or edible flowers—the visuals are almost as important as the scent and flavor to setting the mood.


(Serves 5)

When you think of mulled wine, you’re probably thinking of something very close to this classic recipe. Make it just like this or use the recipe as a jumping off point for your own creative riff. Remember to not let the wine get to a full boil and don’t cook it for too long— you want an infusion, not a reduction.

1 bottle red wine
2 cinnamon sticks (plus 5 for garnish) 1 orange
10 cloves
1 cup brandy (optional)
Garnish: an orange slice
or cinnamon stick

In a large pot, combine the wine and spices and heat to a gentle simmer. Cook to a bare simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in brandy, strain and serve. Garnish with an orange slice or cinnamon stick.

To make your own blend at home, don’t be afraid to get creative.

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