From glogg in Scandinavia to vin chaud in France, variations of mulled wine have persisted around the world for centuries. In Britain, the most famous example is the Bishop, a simple, port-based punch that’s been immortalized in literature as a symbol of redemption and holiday cheer.
The Bishop has existed since at least 1755, the year lexicographer Samuel Johnson defined it as “a cant word for a mixture of wine, oranges and sugar” in his English language dictionary. Precisely where the name derives from is harder to pinpoint. By some accounts, it is rooted in the deep purple hue of port, which resembles the color of a bishop’s robe, but according to historian Elizabeth Gabay, the actual reason was more nuanced. In many Protestant countries, says Gabay, like Germany, Denmark and Sweden, the drink was traditionally served out of a vessel shaped like a Catholic bishop’s mitre. In effect, explains Gabay, “You would get drunk and laugh at the Church at the same time.”
Not alone in mocking the Catholic church, the Bishop belongs to a family of large-format, warm, spiced punches known as “ecclesiastics” and falls somewhere between the definitively more regal Pope, which was made with Burgundy, and the Church Warden, which was made with inexpensive ginger wine and thinned with tea. Other members of this family include the Champagne-based Cardinal, the sherry or claret-fueled Archbishop and the Chorister, built on a base of white wine.
But within this drinks family, the Bishop certainly received the most fame, largely due to its role in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There, it acts as the focal point of yuletide celebrations between a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser no more, and his belittled clerk, Bob Cratchit: “I’ll raise your salary and endeavor to assist your struggling family… and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of Smoking Bishop, Bob!” (“Smoking,” in this context, referred to the common practice of the drink being set aflame for visual effect.)
Though the Bishop was largely a British phenomenon—unsurprising, given that country’s longstanding affinity for wine-based punches—it did cross the Atlantic, and was described in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 How to Mix Drinks as “a favorite beverage, made with claret or port.” But, because the early cocktail pioneer loved nothing more than to turn tradition on its head, Thomas also provided a recipe for a Protestant Bishop, which was served on the rocks. That rendition proved to have more staying power in America through the 20th century; Trader Vic’s 1947 Bartender’s Guide offered three variations of iced Bishop cocktails, each of which he pared down to a single serving to be more in tune with the era’s notions of individualism.
Today, many bartenders, like those at The Dead Rabbit, are reviving traditional hot drinks, from the Negus to the Lawn Sleeves to Wassail, and with them, the Bishop. Here, three ecclesiastic punches alongside their modern interpretations.
While George Saintsbury deemed it a “capital crime” to mull good Burgundy in his 1920 Notes on a Cellar-Book, the Pope nevertheless found popularity in 18th-century Europe. In her single-serving update, Natasha David throws the red wine base over ice and fortifies the mixture with a measure of Lillet Rouge, its citrus notes complemented by lemon juice and spiced cinnamon bark syrup.
While the original Cardinal cocktail calls for a spiced wine component, many of today’s interpretations simplify this template. In the case of the See Way Punch, Caitlin Laman offers spice by way of vermouth. Topped with cava, this is a low-proof, hibiscus-infused rendition.
More often than not, today’s Bishops riff on the iced version made by Jerry Thomas, and are typically made in a single serving. The Dead Rabbit offers a shaken version for the summer and a warm iteration for the winter, both built from the same spiced port mixture.