There's nothing that says autumn quite like the scent of spices wafting through the crisp, clean air. Cloves, cinnamon, allspice and anise are practically synonymous with the season, and when they make their way into a drink, it's magic. Pair that with the fact that mulled wine is easy to make and incredibly adaptable, and you've got a home-run holiday cocktail.
Even sommeliers can appreciate the joy of a good mulled wine.
"I am a purist, but I have to admit that when the weather is hot, a sangria is wonderful. Similarly, when the weather is cold, a nice, warm drink is a great thing," said Caroline Styne, owner and wine director at Lucques and AOC in Los Angeles.
But all too often, the malleability of this cool-weather cocktail is ruined by bartenders who want to be chintzy.
"Unfortunately, sangria and mulled wine are dumping grounds for cheap brandy, curacao, port or wine in many restaurants," said Jim Meehan, James Beard Award-winning bartender of New York's PDT. "A mixed drink is only as good as its weakest ingredient (if there is one), so you can't skimp.
"When it comes to mulled wine, you want to use fresh spices and decent wine. Busting out a bottle from the cellar is nonsensical, but don't just use any old hooch. A good rule of thumb is to hover around the $10 price point.
"A lot of people use really serious, highly alcoholic zins or cabs, but I tend to use something a little lighter to medium bodied," said Styne. "I really like a like cotes du rhone or even a grenache.
"Some even suggest using the wine of the moment, beaujolais nouveau, because it's only released in mid-November, and has that lighter characteristic.
And just like in cooking or mixing cocktails, you want there to be a balance of fruit, spice, acid and earth, which is why Styne suggests adding a bay leaf into your spice sachet, which gives a subtle green, earthy element to the finished product.
To get the right flavor, just avoid overheating the mixture.
"I'm not a scientist, but I find that the high heat can scorch and burn ingredients in the mix, including unfiltered wines," said Meehan. It also can over-reduce, making for a super saccharine, almost viscous drinks because too much alcohol and water have evaporated.
The rest is pretty simple. Don't have allspice? It's not the end of the world. Try adding in a few peppercorns instead. Not into using refined sugar? Go halfsies with agave syrup, like we did in this recipe. And there's no need to rush out to buy new glassware, though ideally mulled wine is served in a clear glass mug. It also looks great in vintage teacups, and since they're so itsy bitsy, you can justify a second glass.
Cheers to that!