Scientists at two universities in America have identified cinnamon and some forms of orange scent as among the most pleasant smells that the human nose can detect, thus proving what many of us suspected all along — that there’s nothing quite as alluring or comforting as a simmering pot of mulled wine to get the senses tingling.
We can detect up to a trillion scents in all but those two — mixed with traces of cloves, star anise and wood smoke from an open fire — evoke the spirit of Christmas and create a warm atmosphere in a pub like no others.
Modern drinkers are more receptive than any that have gone before to variety and strong flavours in their tipples, making the role of mulled drinks and hot toddies potentially a bigger money-spinner than ever.
And the real beauty is that they’re not that hard to do. A simple mulled wine needs only a handful of spices and a heat source. The same goes for mulled cider, which has come increasingly into vogue as this century’s cider boom has cemented itself in drinking culture as more than a passing fad.
Just as you would with, say, a great gin and tonic, or a carefully built Mojito, there are rewards to be had in doing mulled drinks really well, with attractive drinking vessels to attract the eye and no cutting corners on the quality of ingredients.
When choosing a base wine to mull, don’t just go for the theory that the cheapest you can find will be OK because the spices will mask the flavour — they won’t.
Also, pay heed to the style of wine you choose. A full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec will stand up to heating and the added spices, while a spicy, black peppery Shiraz could even complement them. But a delicate Pinot Noir will more than likely prove it is not up to the task.
It’s important not to go over the top with the spices, aiming to achieve a subtle balance between the fruit flavours of the wine and the warmth of the other ingredients. A couple of cinnamon sticks, three or four cloves and star anise each, and the zest and juice of a orange are probably going to be enough for each standard bottle of wine used.
The mixture should be brought just to the verge of the boil and reduced to a gentle simmer as soon as it has, to avoid burning off all of the alcohol.
For a similar reason, and to provide more intense spice flavour, some recipes prefer making a syrup by heating sugar with the spices and some of the wine, before adding the bulk of the wine under a more gentle heat.
A spoon or two of honey will balance the spices with sweetness, and just as with sauces in the kitchen, tasting the recipe to see what’s needed to achieving that balance is recommended.
Repeat purchases will hinge on the end quality of the product. A good look will help as well, so for an extra Christmassy garnish serve with a curl of orange peel and a cinnamon stick.
If this sounds like a faff, then no-fuss, off-the-shelf solutions are available. Continental Food & Wine has two bottled products: a 10% ABV trademarked Winter Warmer mulled wine and a Harvest Fruits mulled wine at 8% ABV.
It recommends heating gently in a saucepan or even in a microwave, for 45 seconds on high but, in both cases, boiling should be avoided.
But there’s an aesthetic benefit in keeping a ready supply on the go rather than taking a super-fast, serve-to-order option.
As marketing manager Amy Ledger notes: “Mulled wine is perfect served as a blackboard special and is ideal kept in an urn on the back bar to allow quick and easy service.”
Halewood International offers a twist on traditional mulled wine with a mulled version of its Crabbie’s Ginger Wine.
Senior brand manager Claire Kelly says: “We suggest serving in a tall glass with cinnamon sticks and citrus peel garnish to create a perfect winter warmer.
“It can also be enjoyed the Crabbie’s way, by pouring it over a mince pie for a Christmas dessert option.”
Several cider firms now produce ready-to-go mulled ciders each year.
Westons Mulled Cider is among them, a 4% ABV blend of English cider with cinnamon and other mulled spices. The product is ready to drink and needs only to be warmed before serving.
It comes in a 20-litre bag-in-box format for the on-trade, which will keep for six weeks once opened, so smaller batches or single serves can be poured and heated without worries about waste.
Brand manager Tim Williams says sales have been growing every year since it was first launched in 2012.
“We know that sales this year will be strong, with the pre-season forecasts already ahead of last year’s sales,” he adds. “According to CGA Strategy, mulled cider sales in some outlets [last winter] equalled those of mulled wine, with rate of sale peaking at 45 serves per outlet per week during cold periods.”
Aspall’s Mulled Suffolk Cyder is supplied with a warming kettle, instructions on how to use it and branded hot drink glasses.
The drink has a base of Aspall Draught Suffolk Cyder to which apple juice and mulling spices are added.
Aspall partner Henry Chevallier Guild says: “Mulled cider offers an extension in to the winter season for cider, and reminds consumers that it is not just a summer drink.
“A warm kettle behind the bar filled with good mulled cider gives a great aroma, and lends a warm, convivial atmosphere as winter takes hold.”