Mulled wine is an age-old solution to an age-old problem: It gets cold out! And you want to see your friends. And you don’t want to spend too much money. Once the basics are in place—wine, warmth, spice—I don’t sweat the details too terribly much. That’s because the recipe for mulled wine is incredibly flexible and incredibly forgiving: wine, spice, sugar if you want it, fruit if you want it, hard alcohol like cognac or rum if you want it; heat and serve.
Sure, there are recipes, but it makes just as much sense to take mulled wine as an opportunity to work with what’s on sale (oranges?) or clear out those elderly bottles in the liquor cabinet (say, the orange Curacao from your summer pool party). I find the best strategy is to heat up mulled wine for an hour at high in a slow cooker, then turn it to low, taste and adjust as necessary. And don’t forget: it’s a lot easier to add sugar than take it out!
What wine to use? Honestly, by the time you’ve added cinnamon sticks, oranges and sugar, the efforts of the winemaker have been wiped out, so my advice is to buy a cheap decent red. You definitely don’t want something spoiled or undrinkable, but box wines such as Black Box Merlot or Franzia Red Zinfandel or bottom-shelf jug wines work just fine. Here are a few of my favorite variations of mulled wine.
This mulled wine recipe nicely outlines the basics: two bottles (a liter and a half) of red wine, a half cup of brandy (if you like, or substitute rum, bourbon or whatever’s handy), cinnamon sticks, allspice and cloves.
Cut oranges or tangerines crosswise into circles, removing any pits. Put 10 or 20 black peppercorns in a tea ball, or throw them loose in the bottom of the slow cooker (watch out for them when it’s time to serve!). Add orange liqueur or orange bitters if you’ve got them.
Vanilla Cardamom Honey
Use whole vanilla beans and cardamom pods for fragrance, and sweeten to taste with honey.
Use one part apple cider to two parts wine, add a 10-ounce bag of frozen mixed berries, as well as fresh apple chunks, if you have some on hand.
Spicy Ancho Pepper
Use a dark, sweet wine like red Zinfandel, then add an ancho pepper for a little heat with your sweet spice.
White Ginger Lemon
Start with white or pink wine—a boxed Riesling or white Zinfandel would be good. Cut a dozen or so crosswise slices from a fresh ginger root; add the ginger and slices of lemon (don’t substitute limes—they turn bitter) to the wine. Once warm, add honey or lemon juice to taste.
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