There are three gustatory winter holiday indicators for me: glögg, fondue, and airplane dinners. Fondue is for candle-lit, snowy evenings with close friends and family, glögg is for boozy, midday company Christmas parties, and airplane dinners are for weary travels back and forth to visit the homeland. Glögg is the one that makes you feel lighter the more you consume it. Known variously as mulled wine, gluhwein, vin chaud and a host of other names, it is a quintessentially cold weather throat warmer that feels as comforting and familiar as a bedtime hug from your grandmother.
The bar for glögg was set for me seven years ago during my first Lucia celebration in Sweden. I was working with a multinational pharmaceutical company outside of Stockholm that was as famous at that time as it is infamous now. These were the glory years, and the pinnacle of the holiday season was when the word was passed around the chemistry department that the making of the glögg had commenced. You can expect a fair amount of artistic license and romanticism in any amount of blogging, but believe me when I tell you that the steeping of this Viking brew had achieved a near mythic status. For as long as any soul could remember there was a distinct smell of mulling spices and sweet alcohol that would wind forth from a hidden part of the chemistry building as the ancient ritual covertly began. Like alcoholic Sith Lords, only two people living knew how to harness its power – a master and a student. Laugh if you will, but every year I begged to lay an eye on the recipe and every year I was rejected outright. It was a secret held more tightly than Joseph Smith held the golden plates of the Book of Mormon. To this day I have still not been trusted with the ingredients, which – ahem – may or may not have included laboratory grade ethanol. This recipe is my revenge.
Glögg has a long history as a drink of the Scandinavian people – existing with subtle variations in many household recipe books. Most, however, can agree that the common ingredients are cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, orange peel (normally Seville oranges), sugar, and red wine. I have decided to succumb to the inspiration to head west towards England, reaching back a century to Victorian mulled wine, and then combine it with a strong version of its nordic cousin, starkvinsglögg. A Smoking Bishop was a gentleman’s drink popular in the halls of Oxbridge during the 19th century and was itself based on even older recipes for warm spiced wines. One of the defining characteristics of the drink was that the mildly bitter orange was roasted in order to impart a slightly caramelised flavour to the drink, and a medicinal aromatic quality was had by the inclusion of nutmeg or mace. Through much fine tuning and even finer tasting I have settled upon this absolutely outstanding recipe that combines the best of both worlds. Witness Smoking Glögg.
The overall taste of this drink is very close to that of a truly magnificent and powerful glögg, but the addition of the mace gives it the kick of a Victorian tonic and the singed orange peel yields a strong citrus bite. Many recipes for Smoking Bishop will call for the juice of the orange as well, but I find that the orange flavour becomes overpowering and any additional acidity should be discouraged considering we are already faced with a full bottle of red wine. Speaking of which, I find that a fruity and light red wine that is not too tart works best, but the main thing to aim for is cheap. You won’t be throwing anything picked up at a wine auction into this recipe. One thing that many mulled wine recipes include is star anise, but in my experience the liquorice aroma collides too much with the other flavours present and can give an unpleasant aftertaste to the drink.
I go with mace since it is easy to filter out and really gives a fantastically pungent boost that makes this an old world classic. If you don’t have any mace you can substitute for nutmeg, which is very closely related in flavour since the two spices come from the same fruit. Be careful not to overdose on your nutmeg, though! It contains healthy doses of myristicin, which when consumed in large quantities has psychotropic effects. You would end up incredibly sick from the sheer amount of nutmeg you would need to consume in order to feel anything, but if you didn’t then you could also be happy to flash a whiter smile due to the action of the compound macelignan, which has been shown to inhibit the growth of a type of bacteria responsible for forming dental cavities.
Nutmeg has an unbelievable history that lends an epic status to this drink. For centuries it had been coveted in Europe as a spice with incredible culinary and curative properties that was so expensive that it was worth more than its weight in gold. Up until the 16th century the source of the world’s supply of nutmeg was unknown to any in Europe, as the Arab traders that brought it from Asia refused to reveal its location to the merchants they haggled with in Venice. It wasn’t until a fleet of Portuguese ships wrested the secret from spice dealers in Malacca, near modern day Kuala Lumpur, that the first Europeans were led to a minuscule archipelago off the coast of Indonesia – the Banda Islands. These few islands were the only place on the entire planet where the tree myristica fragrans could be found. The native population had been trading with Asians for centuries, and they gladly traded with Europeans until it became evident that the motives of these Westerners were far from benevolent. By the mid- 17th century the Dutch had violently seized control of all but one island on which the British had established a base to source their own nutmeg. The very first publicly traded company, the Dutch East India Company, had been founded in order to sell the huge quantity of mace, nutmeg and cloves that the Dutch were bringing across the seas. Not content to share the wealth, when the second Anglo-Dutch war ended favourably for them, they left their city of New Amsterdam to the British in exchange for the one remaining island they did not control. However, as they left the British took with them seedlings that they then planted across the rest of their empire, eventually breaking the stranglehold on nutmeg and introducing the spice to Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Zanzibar. What happened to the undesirable colony of New Amsterdam? It was eventually renamed New York.
750 mL bottle red wine
200 mL vodka
50 mL port wine
85 g white sugar
1 1/2 cinnamon sticks, broken
1 orange peel, sliced and dried
6 pieces thinly sliced dried ginger
5 whole allspice peppercorns
10 crushed green cardamom pods
1 whole piece of mace (or 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg)
With a large saucepan on medium heat, add the spices and orange peel. Toast for approximately 5 minutes to let the flavours develop and continue heating until the orange peel just begins to brown. Remove from the burner and carefully add the sugar followed by 100 mL of your vodka. There will be an immediate rush of vapour out of the pan as the alcohol hits, but don’t panic. That vodka is around 40% alcohol so there is going to be a lot of it ejected into the air. If you are using a gas burner then get ready right now – otherwise wait about 10 seconds for the vapour to depart, then light the remaining contents and flambé for approximately 5-10 seconds before putting out the flames with the saucepan lid.
Before I put the noses of the more science-y of you out of joint, let me make a disclaimer – there is at least one publication out there stating that the effects of flambé cooking are more visual than chemical. It is true that the temperature at the top of the flame is much, much hotter than the bottom at pan level, which is almost identical to the mixture before ignition. However…HOWEVER, you will observe a very real blackening of the edges of the orange peel and some caramelisation of the sugar that is sticking to the walls of your saucepan afterwards. What percentage of awesomer this makes the glögg I couldn’t tell you, but I think that you will agree that at the end of this pyroculinary process you will have a thoroughly excellent drink.
Add 100 mL of the red wine and return to the stove element, heating until a boil is achieved. At this point we want to reduce the volume of liquid by approximately half to achieve a fairly syrupy mixture, which should take 5 minutes or so. Now pour in the rest of the wine and vodka along with the port before once again covering with a lid. Turn off the heating and leave for 2 hours in order to let the flavours from the spices be properly extracted by the lovely dark red solution of alcohol. Filter off the solids through a sifter or coffee filter and bottle. If you are feeling extra cheeky you can add another 100 mL of vodka before you snap on the lid. Glögg can be stored for several years and can get better with age, so stock your cellar if you are so inclined.
Is this the finest mulled wine style drink you have ever tasted or do you have suggestions on how to take it up a notch?