Thursday, December 8, 2011


Mulling: How to Manufacture the Holiday Spirit by Throwing a Bunch of Stuff in a Pot

We have entered the time of year when advertisers do their very best to instigate the holiday spirit in you, hapless potential consumer, with cheerily fatuous slogans and jingly jingles and television commercials in which beautiful, well-behaved children experience the kind of exuberant Christmas you never, ever had as a kid. If you’re a certain kind of slightly cynical person who may or may not also have seasonal affective disorder, capitalism’s increasingly aggressive attempts to make you happy so you buy things only make you feel worse, all the more so because you fear you are constitutionally incapable of feeling the holiday spirit at all.
I’m talking about mulling, the process by which wine or cider is infused with aromatic spices and other pleasant flavors, rendering it more delicious and cheer-inspiring than you ever thought possible. Pick your favorites from four basic ingredient categories — liquid, spices, citrus, and more booze — plus optional extras. Warm them all together over medium until the liquid is steaming but not yet boiling, then turn the heat down to low and let the mixture mull for 10 or 20 minutes. You’ll be feeling merry — to the extent that merriness can exist in real human hearts under nonfictional circumstances — in no time.I have good news for you: it is possible for you to feel the holiday spirit, and it doesn't cost much money. It doesn't take much effort, either; all you have to do is throw a bunch of things into a pot and heat them until they start smelling good.

Herewith, the ingredients you will need for mulling.


Your two main mulling liquid choices are red wine and apple cider (though if you want to try mulling other liquids, I won’t stop you!). If you’re mulling wine, go for something cheap: Beaujolais Nouveau is a popular choice, because it comes out around the same time mulling season begins, but feel free to go even cheaper. That Australian one with the kangaroo illustration that looks like it was drawn by a toddler on the label. The kind identified as “red table wine” rather than as consisting of any particular varietals. Two-Buck Chuck. You get the idea. Dry is better than fruity, in my opinion — in other words, if you have a choice between cabernet and merlot, go for the cabernet — but this is not a crucial point, because all subtle flavors will be destroyed and replaced with far less subtle flavors once you heat the wine up.

Cider is easier to choose than wine: it should be cloudy and not have any added sugar and say “cold pressed” and “100% cider” or “100% juice” on the label. Buy it at the farmers’ market for maximum smugness. Done!

You will need a 750-milliliter bottle of wine or a half-gallon bottle of apple cider for the following amount of spices and other ingredients; either will make about four to six servings. (I’m assuming a serving of mulled cider is slightly bigger than a serving of mulled wine, since it’s less alcoholic.) Feel free to multiply all ingredients as needed to accommodate the number of people you’re serving.


The fun part! Choose your favorites from the list below, and feel free to adjust the quantities depending on your preferences. The cinnamon is mandatory; everything else is discretionary, but you’ll need about four different spices to get a nice and heady mixed-spice aroma. Don’t go overboard and use every spice listed here, or else the spice flavor will be bitter and muddled. But also don’t stress — you’ll be fine! If you find the spice flavor too strong after the mixture has mulled for a bit, just pour in more wine or cider.

-2 cinnamon sticks
-6 whole cloves
-1 star anise
-4 cardamom pods
-6 allspice berries
-1 whole nutmeg
-a few slices unpeeled fresh ginger, or 1 tablespoon chopped crystallized ginger

You can just throw these straight into the pot with the wine or cider, but you’ll need a small strainer to serve it later — unless you’re the kind of person who likes finding wet cardamom pods and cloves in your teeth when you’re eating rice at an Indian restaurant, in which case you can just ladle freely and let the spices flow where they may.

If you don’t have a strainer and are super-fancy and competent, you can bundle up the spices in cheesecloth before tossing them in the pot.

Holiday gift idea for people you like but not enough to spend a ton of money on: throw a bunch of the above spices in a jar, write “mulling spices” on a sticker and slap it on the side, and tie a ribbon around the neck. (Don’t attempt this with fresh ginger, though; it’ll get moldy and disgusting, and your gift recipient will think you’re playing a cruel joke on hir.)


Citrus is absolutely crucial for mulled wine or cider — it sort of heightens and brightens the flavors of the spices and keeps the whole thing from tasting like a melted scented candle. Orange is my go-to mulling citrus fruit. (Lemon works only if you’re mulling cider, since apples and lemons have an affinity for each other.) The easiest thing to do, in my opinion, is cut an orange in half, squeeze the juice into the pot, and then toss the orange carcass in after it. That way you get flavor from both the sweet-tart juice and the aromatic rind.

I’ve seen recipes that call for a tablespoon or two of dried orange and/or lemon peel instead of fresh fruit, but why, why would you do this? Fresh citrus is much cheaper and more flavorful, so don’t bother with dried peel, unless you happen to have a ton lying around and are desperate to find something to do with it.


It may not be immediately obvious to mulling novices why you would want to add more booze to mulled wine. The legit-sounding answer is that when you heat up the wine, even without boiling it, some of the alcohol evaporates, so you have to replace it to get a nice balance of flavors. The real answer is that when you add more booze to mulled wine, it gets you tipsy faster.

Cheap brandy, which is not good for very many things, is perfect for mulled wine; it’s made out of wine, so all it does is make the mulled wine taste winier. I’ve also seen recipes call for rum, which I feel pretty meh about, and vodka, which is more or less the most useless liquor ever. (The only reason I would ever consider putting vodka in mulled wine is that when you do this, you get to call it “glögg,” and cocktails containing umlauts are always fun.) Whatever you use, add about 1/4 cup along with the wine, spices, and citrus. Maybe another splash. Haha, yeah, just a tiny bit more than that.

It’s obvious why you need more booze when you’re mulling cider: there’s no alcohol in it yet. (Sorry. If you are a child or don't consume alcohol for some other reason, you can certainly skip this part; holiday spirit not guaranteed in this case.) It’s best not to add alcohol to cider until you’re ready to serve it; the easiest way to go is just to pour a shot of liquor into a mug and then ladle the mulled cider in after it.

Whiskey is the only acceptable liquor to mix with mulled cider. The apple flavor and the whiskey flavor interlock to form some kind of perfect new flavor that is so much more than the sum of its parts. I’ve never come as close to understanding what people mean when they talk about soulmates as when I’m drinking mulled cider with whiskey.

(Okay, fine; you can use rum instead of whiskey with cider, but only in an emergency.)


You will probably have to add a little sugar, brown sugar, or honey to your mulled wine to keep it from tasting too sour. Start with a tablespoon of sweetener and taste to see if you need more. Mulled cider is usually sweet enough without extra sugar, but if you have a sweet tooth, go for it.

You can add other things to the mulling pot, too, if you’re feeling adventurous. Some mulling recipes call for black tea (either a teabag or half a cup or so of already-brewed tea), which does not do it for me AT ALL, but please don’t let my prejudices sway you.

In Scandinavian parts, people put almonds and raisins in their mugs before adding mulled wine, which is just kind of INSANE, but great if you want to nibble while drinking but are too lazy to actually make yourself a snack.

But do whatever you want! Chop up whatever random fruit you have in your fridge and throw it in there! Try crazy flavored liqueurs instead of brandy or whiskey! Tell me how it goes!

And once, after a glass or two, you suddenly feel the holiday spirit — that flush in your cheeks and heat in your stomach and smile on your lips — please try to enjoy it. Because moments of mediocrity and disappointment and heartbreak and frustration vastly outnumber moments of happiness in life, so you’d better make the most of whatever tiny instants of joy you manage to experience, even when they are just the temporary side effect of drinking hot, sugary alcohol.

L. V. Anderson lives in Brooklyn and works at Slate.

81 Comments / Post A Comment

The Lady of Shalott

1. I use a tea ball to throw all spices in, because I'm too lazy for a strainer OR cheesecloth. Done!

2. By 4-6 servings you mean "one lady-sized serving," right? Like....for me?


@The Lady of Shalott That tea ball idea is genius!


@The Lady of Shalott I wish they sold things as 'lady-sized'. Diet yoghurt: servings, 100. Lady-servings, 0.5.


may I suggest a shaving of butter to float on top of your drink?

Any One Ninja Plot

@ginalouise Yes, you may.


This had to post at 11 am on a Thursday, huh? Because now I want some RIGHT NOW.


@thebestjasmine It's to ensure that you've built up sufficient desire for this thing to carry you over into actually doing it once you have the opportunity.

Edith Zimmerman

@thebestjasmine I programmed this at 7 a.m. today and felt like a monster.


My mum always jammed the cloves into the peel of the orange, so we didn't have to strain!


@missvancity Uh, I did not mean to like that. I feel like a fool.


@missvancity My best friend in childhood did this too! (Yes, we used to mull cider at her house. #NewEnglandchildhood) But anyway, at the time I was not at all up on the practicalities of "strainers" and "stuff in your teeth" and whatnot. I just thought she was doing it for fun/to look pretty. I therefore believed she was being totally crazy and annoying for making me sit there pressing cloves into oranges in A PERFECT PATTERN, but I did it anyway, because that is friendship.

And all these years later, it turns out there was a good reason! I have to tell her this now.


@missvancity Don't worry. I accidentally liked one of Mr Johnson's posts the other day. I literally stood up and went 'nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!'

Lily Rowan

@miwome She may also have been distracted by a history of making pomander balls? You need the cloves in a perfect pattern for those. And is anything more New England-y than giving a pomander ball as a gift? I think maybe no.


I'm a boring non-drinker (I know, I know, totally un-Hairpin of me), but I'm totally going to do this with plain non-alcoholic cider (maybe the Pear Cider from TJ's?) this weekend. So festive-smelling!

Feminist Killjoy

@figwiggin ditto! U R NOT ALONE

Feminist Killjoy

@Rosemary McClure i'm not boring though


@Rosemary McClure Touché! I have pretty much cornered the market on boringness around these parts, so you'd best not try to contest my title!


Did I spot a gender-neutral pronoun? Yay!

Also, agreed that vodka is the worst ever. And totally going to make this tomorrow!

Carrie Ann

@wilarseny Get rid of your vodka, ladies, seriously it is revolting.

Cat named Virtute

@wilarseny You and I see eye to eye on all things, I see. I raise my to-be-made glass of mulled cider to you, friend!


@Carrie Ann No no, stuff slices of ginger into your vodka and then, after about two weeks, it is heaven's own nectar.

Carrie Ann

@wallsdonotfall That sounds more appealing, I suppose. The only way I can tolerate vodka is by combining it with really strong flavors, like ginger beer or grapefruit juice. My husband likes vodka well enough, so we generally keep it around. But when I lived alone, a friend brought over a bottle once and I glared at it for a few days and then decided to make vanilla extract. Which was a great choice.


@wallsdonotfall When it's done, do you have to add any sugar/syrup to this ginger+vodka heaven, or is it more wonderful as is? TELL ME MORE


@Katiesaurous I really, really like ginger, so I didn't add anything. Buuuuuut it is GREAT with simple syrup (and actually, you should make ginger syrup too, it's dead easy). Mostly I added it to soda water, to Dark and Stormy's, to G&Ts, to orange juice...


@wallsdonotfall I have a jar of ginger syrup in my fridge.. I made it several weeks ago, though, so for all I know it's gone bad. But I have a chunk of ginger left over, and I (always) have vodka at my house, so it's looking like there might be an infusion session starting tonight! I've been thinking about making a cranberry vodka, and Im out of my coffee vodka that I always make, so it's about time anyway


@Carrie Ann Similarly, I can only dig on the vodka if it's a base liquor in some kind of complex cocktail mixed for me by a professional. (Or if it's an alcohol emergency. Alcmergency?) A couple of ice luges in college was enough.


@wilarseny Nooo! Vodka is AMAZING! Although the idea of it in anything mulled is so confusing to me. Once someone gave me some vanilla vodka, which is revolting. But really amazingly good with coke and also ginger beer, who knew? I need to encourage my boyfriend to do another brew to put through his friend's illegal still because I'm almost out of 'vodka'.

Also, why did mulling cider never occur to me? I can't drink red wine (cries). I am saving this for winter. Mmmm so cozy!

Also also, hooray for neutral pronouns!

Carrie Ann

@miwome My favorite bartender put out a book this month, in which I discovered that a few of his cocktails that I very much enjoy contain vodka--despite the fact that he is also not a vodka fan, and tries to trick people into drinking gin whenever possible. I felt duped. But anyway, yes, when the vodka hides in complex cocktails, it is apparently more palatable to me.


@wilarseny I was also excited to see that pronoun! People look at me funny and/or comment that I misspelled a word when I do that.


@Carrie Ann I do legitimately feel that there are some cocktails that just have to be vodka-based. At good cocktail bars, every time I am skeptical about a drink being vodka-based but like the sound of everything else in it, I always find myself saying "Yeah, this had to be vodka based. Gin would have been weird." So: high-quality bartenders: they know what's up!

Dirty Hands

@Carrie Ann @Katiesaurous
One word: limoncello.


Yay! I was going to comment on the holiday happy hour post that mulled wine was unjustly missing, but I forgot. Thanks for being psychic hairpin!

Anyway, mulling is the best, you get booze and you feel super together for adding all the things.


@secretbees I posted the holiday happy hour link on a friend of mine's facebook page because he offered to bring mulled wine/some sort of hot drink to my holiday party (I have the best friends). Then I had to ALSO post this one. But yay more options!


Almonds and raisins in mulled wine will change your life! Make sure to marinate them in some spirits before hand so every bite is a burst of alcoholic goodness!

J Walter Weatherman

@drlolo Seconded! I'm from the US but currently living in Finland, and almonds in your glöggi are absolutely mandatory. Also, here they serve alcoholic glöggi at school functions, which is why Finland is better than all the other countries.

tiny dancer

These things aren't whiskey but Tuaca and pear brandy are amazing with mulled cider. It's like a boozy pie in a glass. I really wish I had some now.


@tiny dancer YES AND ALSO: calvados. Hot mulled cider + apple brandy = WINNING.


@stonefruit @tiny dancer My heart is just overflowing with boozy love for The knowledgeably boozy Hairpin.


ummm, the label design for the Beaujolais Nouveau is amazing.


@liznieve OMG, yes! I just popped up on here to say the same thing!I'm gonna need to get me a case of that.


How much whiskey in the cider? And what kind?


@phlox All of it. And bourbon.

Srsly, it's kind of up to you, but I like a good 1/3 or so of the drink to be bourbon. Think about the way you like your highballs.


So, last weekend, before embarking on a freezing cold gallery crawl, I threw cider and mulling fixins into my CROCKPOT, set the heat to LOW, and came back 3 hours later to hot, boozy, heaven. HIGHLY recommended.

Cat named Virtute

@thanks_maybe OH MY GOD.


@thanks_maybe That may be the single most convincing reason to get a Crock Pot that I've ever heard.


While mulled cider is by far my favorite (because apples are the best), I just felt like this is the perfect time to mention Feuerzangenbowle. Not only is it mulled wine, but it's mulled wine that involves lighting a rum-soaked sugar cone on fire.

It's amazing.


@meetapossum You just beat me to it; I was just about to mention my favorite German drink.


@meetapossum hehe i love those.


@meetapossum My German boyfriend did one last year for our New Year's Eve party. It was definitely a showstopper, and really tasty too.

Judith Slutler

@meetapossum YES. I was about to say this! We used to make it in my old apartment once a year, and it is a thing of beauty to turn off all the lights and watch blue rum flames engulf a giant sugar cone.

Plus everyone gets so plastered that we had at least 2 friends sleeping on the living room couch afterwards every year, lol.

Wookiee Hole

@meetapossum Oh. My. God. I lived in Germany for a year and never saw/heard of this! This sounds amazing!!!


In Germany they also make mulled Fruit wines (cherry, blueberry, plum etc.), so if you can get ahold of any of those, you can do the same process. Also it's common to find Glühwein with bits of apple soaking in it, which is lovely. They also put shots of other things in it (rum, amaretto, or what have you)

Judith Slutler

@bocadelperro You can also toss little pieces of mandarin orange in there, it's pretty delicious.

Wookiee Hole

@bocadelperro I miss Glühwein at Weihnachtsmaerkte so much! So delicious! A highlight of the German Christmas experience for any American 17-year-old!


GUUUUYYYSSS, tell me how to make the perfect hot buttered rum! I discovered hot buttered rum this time last year when my favorite bar started serving them and it was so incredibly delicious and perfect. I tried to recreate them at home many times but couldn't get it right. I have moved several times since then and no longer have access to that bar, so it is critical that I figure out how to do it on my own because we don't have a working heater in our apartment yet so I've got to warm myself from the inside out as the gods intended.


@Diana I also need to know this. For... reasons.

cold unfeeling robot heart

Not only am I making mulled wine tonight now, I'm doing Step 4: More Booze with my half cup of leftover apple spiced rum. Thanks, Hairpin!


cold unfeeling robot heart

@cold unfeeling robot heart It's the future now and my mulled wine with apple rum came out great.


I use a few whole black peppercorns in my mulling spices. I also use allspice dram (added either at the end of the mulling or to each mug) for the boozy kick rather than the allspice berries. And also some spiced rum sometimes when it's really cold/Saturday outside.


@RocketSurgeon "when it's really cold/Saturday outside" is like a window into my life.

Jon Custer

Good recipes, I'll consider them at length. (Ha! You thought I'd make a pun there.)


i tried mulling wine last week and i think i evaporated basically all of the alcohol. am i allowed to add brandy to the thing after i've turned the heat off?

Dennis Scott@facebook

@jstar you are not only allowed, you are COMMANDED! :)


Everyone everyone! It was mentioned in another alcohol post, but get some fireball whiskey for that mulled cider. Trust me.


YUM. Yes, this. Lovelovelove mulled wine.


My brother made a mulled wine recipe last winter that had 4 bottles of wine, two cups of rum, and still managed to be astoundingly low in actual alcohol by the time it had mulled thoroughly. Although while it was heating up we had to move to the living room so we wouldn't get tanked on fumes.


A lazy/frugal person's tip is to mull apple juice instead of cider. They taste surprisingly similar all hot with cinnamon.

You can also mull wine and cider together, for those times when you can't decide. The nice thing about this is you can mull the cider for quite a while to get it all spicy, and then add the wine just till hot, thereby boiling off less of the alcohol. If that's what you're looking for.


@Quaxanta Indeed. I was hosting a drinks and hors-d'oeuvres party for a bunch of picky people (to give you an idea of how picky, I will just mention that I had to make vegan, gluten-free, nut-free, and raw desserts), and realized that I didn't have a festive beverage for people who didn't drink alcohol. My only shopping option was the grocery section of the local Walgreen's, so I bought 2 gallons of cheap no-name apple juice from concentrate and mulled it as usual.

And the fussy beasts loved it. It was gone even more quickly than the wine.


@Ria "I had to make vegan, gluten-free, nut-free, and raw desserts"

You are a much better friend than I am.


happiness, thy name is Glühwein.


Another good alcohol choice for mulled wine is port. Port is sweet and boozy. Add a 1/2 c. per bottle of red wine.


I just drank a bottle Of this and I endorS this recipe!!!

The Lady of Shalott

@Diana I wish I could upvote this forever.


Dear North America & World beyond Southern England and Wales: You are doing cider wrong. If it's not made from fermented apples, and at least 5% alcohol, it's not cider. It's, I don't know, apple juice? What do you even mean when you say cider?


But wait!! Contrary to popular belief, white mulled wine is a thing, and it is an awesome thing! Prepare as you would red mulled wine, except keep the spices on the lighter side (so, whatever you would use for cider instead of wine). In Hungary, they serve white mulled wine with a teeny spoonful of spicy paprika (hard to find this in the States) or cayenne. It beyond excellent, especially if you are serving outdoors for some reason. Also, when I say teeny, I mean like smaller than a babyfood spoon. TEENY.


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