How To Make Flavorful And Comforting Mulled Wine For The Holidays

A drink that gets better with each sip.

mulled wine

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When it comes to cocktails closely associated with the holiday season, eggnog tends to get a great deal of attention, but it’s far from the only festive drink choice for a December party.

Mulled wine, a winter libation with a centuries-old history, features toasty spices (like cinnamon, cardamom, and clove) and a perfectly-cozy hot temperature. Also, it’s an easy treat to prepare as a large-format cocktail and to make ahead of time, helping you cut way back on your party-day tasks.

If you’ve never made mulled wine before or want to polish up your technique, check out our roundup of expert mulled wine advice from professional bartenders and beverage directors. 

Choose a fruit-forward, mid-range wine without big tannins

"Mulling" refers to the process of heating wine, sweetening it, and infusing it with spices and seasonings. The term’s definition doesn’t specify whether the base wine should be red, white, or sweet, but our experts recommended red wine across the board, suggesting that the deeper flavors and richer mouthfeel is a strong match for the sweetness and spice associated with mulled wine. 

When shopping for a bottle to mull, it’s best to stick to the middle where both price and texture are concerned. “Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to get the priciest bottle for mulling. This is an added benefit of mulling; you can create something unique for your guests without having to purchase something out of your price range,” insists restaurant and beverage manager Bickin Karagoz of Tillie’s at Camp Lucy in Dripping Springs, Texas. 

In terms of specifics, follow the advice of certified sommelier and wine educator Jillian Fontana and “don't overspend, but don't totally cheap out, either. Something in the $9-15 price range will work well."

Fontana urges you to seek out a medium-bodied or full-bodied red without high tannins (the particles in grape skins that can cause your mouth to dry out). “When red wine is hot, the [tannic] sensations become heightened and unpleasant,” she says.

Karagoz agrees with the low-tannin idea, adding that “a bottle with relatively high alcohol and lots of fruit” is a good choice. The wine styles suggested by Fontana and Karagoz include Garnacha, Côtes du Rhône, Beaujolais, Malbec, Shiraz, and Merlot.   

Don’t rush the process

"The key to infusion of anything is time,” chef/owner Chris Damian of Sip Wine Bar & Kitchen in Boston tells us. Therefore, to make an excellent batch of mulled wine, you need to accept that there aren’t any shortcuts.

The most important rule of mulled wine involves keeping the heat low and never letting the wine come to a boil.

"You want to cook the wine on a low temperature for a long time to make sure the flavors fuse together without turning the wine bitter or cooking out all of the alcohol. If the mixture gets too hot, you also increase the chances of turning your wine into syrup,” explains beverage director and certified sommelier Kara Flaherty of Take Root Hospitality in St. Louis, Missouri.  

If you’re worried about overcooking your mulled wine, “making [mulled] wine in a slow cooker [rather than a stovetop] is actually a more reliable way,” says Flaherty.  “A slow cooker will help ensure that you don’t boil the mixture, and you can feel confident walking away if you need to.  Just add your ingredients, and set it to low for about an hour.  You will start to smell when everything starts melding together.” 

Brandy is a classic ingredient in mulled wine, but feel free to get creative

In addition to the wine base, most mulled wine recipes include a second layer of booze in the form of fortified wine. Most commonly, brandy is used for this purpose.

However, any distilled spirit can be used to give mulled wine an extra boost, so don’t hesitate to play around with what you have in your liquor cabinet.

According to beverage consultant and certified sommelier Allie Balin, Calvados (an apple brandy from France) "can add to the booze and warmth factor” in lieu of an unflavored brandy.

If you’re more of a citrus fan, try this formula from general manager Gabe Sanchez of Midnight Rambler at the Joule Hotel in Dallas, Texas: “Most mulled wine recipes call for brandy or an orange liqueur. I like to use a split base of Armagnac [a specific brand of French brandy] and orange liqueur. If you want the mulled wine stronger, increase the Armagnac and decrease the orange liqueur. This will make a drier mulled wine; if you want it rounder, you can add pulp free orange juice to taste.” 

Another favorite twist of Sanchez’s is to “use Port wine [a dessert wine from Portugal] instead of the orange liqueur. This will make a deeper and richer-tasting mulled wine. If you have the time, reduce the Port wine by half and add it to your mulled wine recipe in place of the orange liqueur.  It is a little decadent, but it is the holidays."

Experiment with spices, aromatics, and sweeteners 

Just as the spirits in mulled wine can be switched out and adjusted, so can the spices and aromatics. The classic seasonings for a mulled wine infusion are cinnamon stick, star anise, and cloves. But there’s no need to limit yourself to those particular ingredients.

"I like using a whole vanilla bean split [down the middle] to add a rich vanilla flavor,” says COO Pennington Pribbenow of Ella’s on 2nd, Adele’s, and The 404 Kitchen in Nashville.

When deciding which spices to include in your mulled wine, be sure to use “whole spices and not ground spices from your cabinet. The ground spices don’t have as much flavor and will leave a grit in the wine. You want to be able to extract the flavors without altering the mouthfeel,” advises beverage director Rich Iannone of The Harpeth Hotel in Franklin, Tennessee.

Many mulled wine recipes also call for fruit. Sliced oranges are a classic, but Iannone also likes to add “half cup of fresh cranberries cut in half” for extra acidity and holiday-appropriate flavor notes.

Simple syrup or granulated sugar are common sweetening agents for mulled wine, but “maple syrup or honey” are also options, according to Iannone. Another cozy possibility, courtesy of Gabe Sanchez, is “brown sugar” dissolved in the mulling liquid. 

Recipe: Mulled Wine 

By Adam Morgan (bar manager, Husk, Nashville, Tennessee)

1 bottle red wine (Morgan recommends a “dry Spanish red” like Garnacha)
¼ cup brown sugar
1 cup brandy or brandy-related spirit (Morgan recommends amaro)
1-2 oranges, sliced
2-3 cardamom pods
2-3 sprigs of rosemary
2-3 star anise pods
3-4 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
Peels of 3 oranges
Peel of 1 lemon


  1. Wrap cardamom pods, rosemary, star anise pods, cloves, cinnamon sticks, orange peels, and lemon peels in cheesecloth. 
  2. Pour red wine and brandy or amaro into a saucepan over low heat. 
  3. Add brown sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the spice bundle and orange slices and gently simmer for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
  4. Serve in warm mugs and garnish with orange slices, orange peel, and/or rosemary.
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