Mulled Wine conjures up the image of a warming drink on dark, chill winter evenings. The tradition is firmly associated with Christmas markets and a pick-me-up after carol singing. Mulled wine is also a firm favourite drink while visiting one of the increasingly popular Christmas garden light displays. Various countries have their own versions of Mulled Wine. The best-known are German Glühwein and Nordic Glögg. Ingredients may vary, but certain ingredients remain fairly constant.
We owe the vital wine ingredient to the Romans for planting grapes throughout their European empire. The continuation of wine production is attributed to monasteries down the ages. In fact, the prevalence of wine in Europe is closely allied with Christianity, tracing back to Christ’s Last Supper. The Romans added spices to wine to improve its flavour and lifespan.
The etymology of mulled is uncertain. However, the term is believed to come to us via Dutch or Flemish around 1600 meaning to sweeten, spice, and heat (a drink). It may come from the Dutch mol for a kind of white, sweet beer, or from the Flemish molle for a kind of beer. Both words are related to a concept of softening. Generally, Mulled Wine is created from red wine, although white wine versions do exist in Germany and Alsace. Traditionally, a poor-quality wine would have been used. Historically, it was safer to drink wine than water. Even children drank watered-down wine.
Today’s Mulled Wine recipes recommend that you work with a full-bodied, fruity, dry red wine in the middle price range. (Links to some recipes appear in the references below). All the ingredients are put in a saucepan and gradually heated for a thorough infusion. Boiling should be avoided.
Cloves are one of the most consistent ingredients in Mulled Wine recipes. They are the dried small white flowers that are native to just 5 small islands in Indonesia. They look like little brown nails. In fact, the name Clove is derived from the Latin word clavus meaning nail. The botanical name is Syzygium aromaticum. It is a member of the Myrtaceae or Myrtle family.
Traditionally, the Molucca islanders planted a Clove tree to celebrate the birth of every child. Although it is now grown further afield, Indonesia remains the world’s largest producer of Cloves. Wild Cloves still grow on the islands. Clove buds are hand-picked before they open and are dried in the sunshine.
Cloves are also used in Christmas decorations. A popular craft is to decorate an Orange by inserting Cloves into it to create a pomander (see link in references). You may notice such decorations as you cup your hand around your Mulled Wine cup for warmth at Christmas markets.
Cinnamon is one of the main ingredients of Mulled Wine. Recipes use Cinnamon sticks rather than ground Cinnamon to flavour the wine. Mulled Wine simply wouldn’t taste right without it. True Cinnamon comes from the Cinnamonum verum tree as explained in yesterday’s blog in greater depth.
Star Anise may not be used in all Mulled Wine recipes, but it makes a striking visual as well as taste contribution when it is used. This is the dried fruit of Illicium verum in the Schisandraceae (it was formerly attributed to Magnoliaceae and Illiciaceae). It grows on an evergreen tree with yellow Magnolia-like flowers. The tree is native to parts of Vietnam and China. Unfortunately, it is no longer found in the wild. However, it is widely cultivated in warm, tropical climates. Today, Star Anise is grown in China, Japan, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. The fruit is picked by hand when ripe and dry.
Each brown, boat-shaped carpel houses a seed. The regular star shape looks particularly appropriate at Christmas floating in Mulled Wine.
Another spice that is sometimes added to Mulled Wine is Green or True Cardamon. It is commonly found in Swedish glögg for example. Green Cardamon comes from the aromatic seeds of Elettaria cardamomum, a leafy perennial in the Zingiberaceae or Ginger family. This oriental spice is commonly known as the Queen of Spices. The seeds maintain their flavour best if left in the pods for as long as possible. Harvesters take care to maintain the green colour to meet market demand and gain the best possible prices for their product.
Cardamon originates from India, but today it is grown further afield. Most notably, it is grown in Guatemala. Arab countries like to add Cardamon to their coffee. Guatemala meets this demand by growing Cardamon as well as coffee beans. Cardamon is the third most expensive spice in the world after Saffron and Vanilla (see previous blogs).
Other ingredients that are mentioned in various old and current recipes are Ginger, Galingal (a plant in the Ginger family rather than the sedge), Nutmeg, Mace, Marjoram, Grains of Paradise (Aframonum melegueta), Fennel seeds, Vanilla pods and Apples. Slices and/or zest of Orange or Lemon are often added. The blend is sweetened with white or brown sugar, maple syrup or honey. The Swedes like to add Raisins and Almonds to the bottom of a Glögg glass with a dash of vodka or brandy. In fact, many nations like to fortify their versions of Mulled Wine with a spirit. Non-alcoholic recipes exist too.
© Karen Andrews
References and Further Reading
- Almanac.com (2022): How to make Pomander Balls. 14 December 2022.
- BBC Good Food (2022): Classic Mulled Wine.
- Bacon, Josephine et al. (2017): The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables, & Herbs. History, Botany, Cuisine. Chartwell Books. New York.
- Varricchio, Taryn & Morgan, Clancy (2021): Green cardamom is one of the most expensive spices in the world. Here’s why. Business Insider. 3 November 2021.
- Case, Frances Ed. (2008): 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die. A Global Guide to the Best Ingredients. Quintesssence. London.
- Davidson, Alan (2006): The Oxford Companion to Food. Second Edition. Edited by Tom Jaine. Oxford.
- Dunk, Anja (2021): Advent. Festive German Bakes to Celebrate the Coming of Christmas. Quadrille. London.
- Harper, Douglas (2001-2022): mulled (adj.). Online Etymology Dictionary.
- Laws, Bill (2010): Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. David & Charles. Exeter, UK.
- Swedish Food.com (2021): Mulled Wine. Glögg.
- van Wyk, Ben-Erik (2005): Food Plants of the World. An illustrated guide. Timber Press.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.