If apocalyptic snow cut you off from civilization, what would be in your survival kit? Bottled water? Trail mix? Flashlights?
Okay, that may keep you, well, alive. But you won't be in an especially good mood. And when the rescue team comes to dig you out of your snow cave, wouldn't you like to have a warm, spicy, boozy beverage to offer them?
If so, it's time to get out the crockpot, holiday spices, and cheap Cab to brew up a batch of mulled wine.
Mulling wine is a set-it-and-forget-it enterprise that rewards you all day long. It's cheap, easy, and forgiving. And after mulling (and sipping) a good gallon of wine this past weekend, I have some tips to get the most out of your brew.
Good Wine For Mulling
It's best not to overthink this. Your mulling wine should be red. It should be fruity. And it should be cheap. Jug and boxed wines, provided they weren't made in a prison toilet, can be mulled into greatness. On the other hand, pricey (which for this case means more than $15) wines will lose all their nuance during mulling, no matter how lovely their notes of oak or blackbird song. Overly oak-flavored or tannic wines will make your brew unpleasantly bitter.
We're happy with Two Three Buck Cabernet Sauvignon, our favorite of the Trader Joe's "Buck" red wines for its juicy, jammy flavors. But use whatever you like that you can imagine adding sugar to.
If your spice rack is looking a little empty, there are plenty of pre-blended mulling spices out there. They won't run you much: $2 to $8 for 4 to 8 bottles' worth of wine. I tried three leading brands to see how they performed. Each recommended using about a tablespoon of mulling spice per 750 ml bottle of wine, which I toasted briefly in a skillet before adding to the wine. Directions called for barely simmering the wine and spices for 20 minutes to half an hour, but I found longer steeping in a crockpot was a substantial improvement. Here's how the brand-names measured up:
- Dean & Deluca, $8 for 3 ounces: This "fancy" blend was the most expensive of the lot, and the most disappointing. Despite the hefty chunks of dried orange peel, the brew had no discernible citrus flavor. Allspice and clove were nice on first sip, but this was too mild to deliver real mulled flavor. It exemplifies the problem with store-bought mulling spices: they over-market and under-deliver.
- Martinelli's, $5 for 25 single serving infuser bags: I'm not sure if it's because the folks at Martinelli's mainly had apple cider in mind when making this, or that they ground their spices really fine, but this was a cinnamon bomb. Raspy, astringent, but with little depth. It hit full flavor potential after a couple minutes' steeping, but stung the throat rather than soothed it.
- Spice Hunter, $2 for 1.3 ounces: My favorite of the bunch, rich with allspice flavor that hit more than just the surface of the sip. It's well balanced and reasonably complex, though next time I'd probably add more than a tablespoon per bottle of wine. If you're looking for a decent all-purpose mulling spice, this is it.
Or Make Your Own
Pre-mixed mulling spices get the job done, but the best mulled wine I've had has always been homemade. You may have to invest in some whole spices, but most spices for mulling cost about $3 for several ounces, more than enough for several mulling sessions. My mulling mix, which is citrus- and anise-forward with rich, light spices, uses a cinnamon stick, allspice berries, coriander seeds, cardamom pods, a star anise petal, and a couple blades of mace. I get my wine simmering in a saucepan, then transfer it to a crockpot to mull for several hours on low heat.
When making your mulling mix, keep in mind that allspice and/or cloves provide the basic "mulled" flavor we're used to. Cinnamon adds dimension, as does the spice chameleon coriander. Small amounts of exotic touches like cardamom, anise, ginger, and nutmeg will make your mix memorable.
Don't be afraid to add dried fruit as well: apricots, prunes, and cherries are especially welcome at the bottom of the mug. No matter what your mix, make sure to toast your spices in a hot skillet to activate their flavors. Some reusable muslin infuser bags will keep cloves out of your teeth.
To get the most from your mulled wine, you'll probably want some additional sugar, citrus, and alcohol. Steeping will bring out the tannic, sour flavors in any wine, so you'll need some sweetness to make it drinkable. About 1/4 cup per bottle will cover you. Vanilla sugar and brown sugar get the job done, but maple syrup adds powerful dimension to your brew. When I start steeping, I also squeeze an orange into the pot, then add the spent orange hull for the complex flavors in the peel.
You may want to add some extra alcohol to your wine, which will hit your nose before other aromas and lend the drink some wonderful complexity. Brandy of most any sort will do you here; plum or apricot brandy are really nice. 1 tablespoon per bottle is all you need, though you can of course add more for a harder drink.
How Do You Mull?
Mulling wine is a wide open field, and there isn't really a right or wrong. So inquiring minds want to know: have any mulling tricks of your own? Sharing is caring.