Mulling Spices: Create Your Own Winter Traditions
Photo by Melody

Mulling Spices: Create Your Own Winter Traditions

By Angela Carson (Bookerc1)January 16, 2014

In much of the world, winter brings chilled fingers, raspy throats, and increased stress, as we hurry around preparing for the holidays, or recovering from them! A hot mulled beverage is the perfect way to slow down, warm up from the inside out, and reflect on the traditions that have stood the test of time. Mix up some mulling spices for your family, or package some up for a friend!

Gardening pictureMulled beverages have been around for centuries, and are a tradition well worth perpetuating.  Quite literally, the term mulled means "heated and spiced." Many different beverages can be served mulled, though wines, juices, and ciders are the most common. Many countries and cultures have their own special version of hot mulled drinks. It can be traced back in literature as far as the Greek physician Hippocrates, who prescribed hot mulled wine as a preventative measure during cold weather and times of frequent illness. Considering the lack of sanitation, questionable water supplies, and poor understanding of germs and infectious diseases at the time, it was probably wise to recommend wine, rather than water. In medieval times, hot mulled wine was even called Ypocras or Hipocris, after Hippocrates.

Steaming mulled wineAdditionally, mulling spices improved the palatability of low-quality wine. Wine bottling techniques were inconsistent at best during the medieval ages, drastically shortening the usable lifespan of wines. Adding spices served to preserve the wine, extending its usefulness, and also mask any off-flavors of wine that had begun to spoil. Cinnamon in particular is useful as an antifungal agent, and is a primary ingredient in many traditional mulling spice recipes.

Many European and Nordic countries have their own specific variations on mulled wine. A few of its many aliases include vin chaud in France, gluhwein in Germany and Austria, glögg in Sweden and Iceland, gløgg in Norway, gzane wino in Poland, vin fiert or vin brulé in Italy, quentão in Brazil, bisschopswijn in the Netherlands, Glintwein in Russia, kan zake in Japan, among many others.  The recipes are as varied as the languages, reflecting the unique cultures and flavors of the different heritages. Some are sweetened with sugar, honey, or syrup, while others are bitter or even spicy.

Creating a mixture of mulling spices can be a highly individualized exercise. I tend to prefer the mixtures that echo the flavors of the mulled ciders of my childhood, with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and ginger as the predominant flavors. Recently, I've begun adding strips of orange peel, minus the bitter white pith, as it reminds me of one of my favorite teas. Lemon peel is also a nice addition, and gives a slightly more astringent flavor, which is wonderful when my throat is sore and raw from a winter cold. Some people also add raisins or other dried fruits, such as apples or cranberries, to impart a sweeter, fuller flavor. Other potential ingredients include star anise, vanilla beans, cardamom, mace, peppercorn, and candied ginger.

Whole mulling spicesMy personal preference is to use whole spices, coarsely crushed, rather than ground spices. I mix up a canning jar of my favorite mulling spices, and measure out how much I need each time according to the size of the batch I am making. You can put the crushed whole spices in a tea ball, in a little cotton spice bag (often referred to as a bouquet garni bag), a heat-sealable paper tea bag, or four layers of cheese cloth tied with cooking twine.  If you don't have any of those on hand, you can even put the whole spices in the cider or wine, and strain it out before serving. Some people prefer to use ground spices, as some will dissolve as the beverage is heated. The ground spices that don't dissolve can be strained out before serving, though I find it unpalatable to find a film of grit in the bottom of my cup.

This is a fairly citrus-y recipe for mulling spices, which I particularly like to use in a good quality of apple cider from a local orchard. If I'm including dried citrus peel, I begin it a day in advance by peeling a lemon and an orange, and removing the white pith. I finely chop the peel, and spread it on a baking sheet covered with wax paper to dry. One day is generally sufficient, if the peel is fairly finely chopped. Long intact strips may take longer. I suppose you could put them in the oven at a very low temperature for a few hours to speed the process, though I've never tried it. If you prefer, you can slice a fresh orange and/or lemon, and float it in the cider or wine as it heats, and eliminate the dried citrus peel from the recipe.  This is particularly pretty when you will be serving the mulled beverage at a party. 

I don't think I ever make the mixture exactly the same way twice, but this is my basic recipe:

Traditional Mulling SpicesJar of Mulling Spices

15 whole cinnamon sticks
3-4 whole nutmegs
½ ounce whole cloves
½ ounce whole allspice
1/8 c. chopped crystallized ginger
½ vanilla bean
zest of one orange or lemon, chopped and dried

Place the cinnamon sticks and nutmegs in a heavy plastic freezer bag. If desired, crush with a hammer, heavy pan, or rolling pin. Slice open the vanilla bean and use the tip of a paring knife to scrape the seeds into the spice mixture. Coarsely chop the bean and add. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.

To use, measure about 1-2 heaping tablespoons into a tea ball, bouquet garni bag, or four layers of cheesecloth. Secure with cooking twine. I use two bags (3-4 T. total)  for my large crock pot, which holds about a gallon of cider. I heat it at least an hour, allowing the flavors of the spices to permeate the cider. Remove and discard the spices before serving. For smaller stove-top batches, I use half a gallon of cider and only one bag of mulling spices. Adjust the quantities to achieve the flavor you prefer.  The longer the spices simmer in the cider or wine, the stronger the spicy flavor will be.

For spiced wine, I choose a sweeter red wine, rather than a woody or very dry wine. I add about ¼ cup of honey or brown sugar, and one mulling spice bag to one standard bottle of wine, and heat until hot but not boiling. Simmer on low 15-20 minutes, then remove the spices and serve. White wine or mead are other traditional choices.


The same spice mixture can be used in other ways, as well. To make your house smell warm and welcoming, you can put some quartered citrus fruits, whole cranberries, mulling spices, and water in a saucepan. Simmer on a very low temperature to scent your kitchen and home and add some much-needed humidity during dry winter weather. Add more water as necessary, to be sure the pan never boils dry.  

One final spin is to use the ground versions of the same spices, and combine them with epsom salts to create a fragrant, soothing bath salt. Use about ¼ c. of the mixed spices for 2 cups of epsom salts or sea salts.  Store in a tightly sealed container, as humidity will cause it to clump.  To use, dissolve 1/3 to 1/2 cup in a warm bath, to soothe and relax achy muscles and soften your skin.  


Photo Credits:

Thumbnail:  Angela Carson.  All Rights Reserved.

Steaming Mulled Wine:   Flickr Creative Commons, by Ian Hayhurst.  Some Rights Reserved.

Whole Mulling Spices:  Flickr Creative Commons, by Jonny Ho.  Some Rights Reserved.

Spices in Old Jar:  Flickr Creative Commons, by shommama.  Some Rights Reserved. 


  About Angela Carson  
Angela CarsonAngie was bitten hard by the gardening bug when she was just a child, and has been doing her best to infect as many people as possible ever since! She particularly has a passion for spring bulbs and home-grown vegetables, which she is teaching the next generation how to preserve. Her two sons have obviously inherited her interest in growing things, and her husband is starting to see the benefits of less lawn to mow, as long as he doesn't have to do the work of digging up new beds for her latest schemes! Follow Angie on Google.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Good idea ... Cville_Gardener 0 3 Jan 16, 2014 3:30 AM
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