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Mulled Wine Gets a Makeover

From a "Viking-tiki" glögg to a port-based riff, four bartenders revamp the holiday standby.

“Some people have nostalgia attached to it and others just think, ‘ew, hot wine,’” says Gaby Mlynarczyk, beverage director at Accomplice in LA. Mlynarczyk is herself in the first camp, recalling drinking mulled wine as a teenager in the chilly north of England. 

“It sounds terrible that my parents were serving me hot wine at 14, but they did.” (Her dad was also partial to post-work hot beer, making a sort of Newcastle Brown Ale flip on the stove with an egg and honey, filling the house up with a divisive malty aroma.)

Just about every European country has its own mulled wine; France has vin chaud, Austria and Germany have glühwein, Sweden has glögg, the U.K. has a couple versions, but the equation is mostly the same: wine, sugar or honey and a handful of spices, mostly of the baking variety. Some renditions call for brandy, others for dried fruits and nuts. But often, they can wind up tasting like tired potpourri, verging on cloying. It’s why a number of bartenders are working to improve on the old standby.

Mlynarczyk’s own reworking of mulled wine came when considering new uses for aquavit, a spirit whose affinity for tropical flavors—like pineapple, lime, vanilla and spice—sent her into a realm that she’s deemed “Viking-tiki.” When these flavors were added to syrah and simmered on the stove, a whole new glögg profile was revealed, the pièce de résistance of which is a little bough of pink peppercorns that she drapes over the drink for a note of subtle spice.

Pulling at similar heartstrings, Kristina Magro, at Prairie School in Chicago, set out to make an improved iteration of the mugs of glühwein sold on blustery days at the city’s annual Christkindlmarket, a sprawling outdoor festival featuring ornament vendors and stands hawking strudel. Her Open Air puts to use a malbec made specifically for the bar by winemaker Brianne Day in Oregon. “The trick to it is you have to start with good wine,” Magro explains. “People think, ‘What does it matter? You’re just doctoring up the wine.’ But it does.”

Magro is one among a number of bartenders who believe that one way to up the ante on the classic mulled wine is simply to raise the ABV; Magro’s recipes uses both Lustau Vermut and Lustau Grand Reserva Brandy for added complexity, along with steeped McIntosh apples, which are forced through a chinois, for a layer of fruitiness and textural richness. Likewise, Ezra Star emboldens her take on the ruby port-based English Bishop with a dose of Cognac, plus roasted, clove-studded sour oranges for added depth.

Meanwhile, in the snowy tundra of Minneapolis, Robb Jones offers up “Something Warm” on his drinks menu at Spoon & Stable, rotating between a number of seasonal hot drinks, including Tom & Jerrys and mulled cider. There, he’s tinkered with a number of tricks for adding flavor to mulled wine, too. He especially likes to call on liqueurs, which can bring a little heat by way of alcohol, and also stand in for sugar.

“There’s such a great variety of properly made liqueurs available now that you can find something great and different for every batch you make,” he explains. (He likes Cartron’s fruit liqueurs, which include the likes of pomegranate, cacao and cassis, for mulled wine.) He’s also played with swapping out the spice blends, preferring to look outside the box rather than adhere to the old mainstays of cinnamon and clove. One easy suggestion: Start with caraway and build from there, adding fennel, coriander and peppercorns. “They’ll create a greater depth of flavor and boost the caraway without making it too aggressive.”

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