As the evenings draw in and the cold takes hold, for many of us there is nothing better than a glass of steaming mulled wine. And if the intoxicating mix of wine, spices and aromas makes you wish it was available all year round, you're in luck. Mulls, toddies, hot cocktails and punches are gaining in popularity, with more venues than ever offering something to warm us up.
The Albion in Bristol serves a popular warm cider, Lutyens restaurant in London offers a hot cosmopolitan, while the Hix restaurants in London and Lyme Regis have created a series of three Beefeater Gin hot cocktails. Even nightclubs are getting in on the act: Maddox in London's Mayfair offers the Never Summer, a cognac and vanilla liqueur-based cocktail. All of them are fun, warming and are often not as boozy as your average cocktail.
Tony Conigliaro, a drinks consultant who runs 69 Colebrooke Row and the Zetter Townhouse in London, says the heat allows us to taste the flavours and infused spices more. "Heat affects your perception of sweetness, and with the volatiles evaporating, so the alcohol notes evaporate, leaving more of the flavour notes," he says. "It's also fairly season-specific, the flavours that work in hot cocktails tend to be the autumn or winter ones."
A fellow master bartender, Tristan Stephenson, believes the herbs and spices have a strong influence on us. "There's a nostalgic effect from them," he says. "Often the spices used with the drinks have an association with Christmas, so you immediately enter into the festive spirit."
Stephenson is at the forefront of those flying the flag for mulled drinks and hot cocktails. He runs the London bar Purl, which is itself named after a sort of mulled beer mixed with gin, which became popular from the end of the 17th-century. Customers of today have found a new taste for it.
His latest venture is The Whistling Shop, which has just opened its "sauce bar," an area inside the venue dedicated to warm winter drinks steeped in history and spices. They serve a hot toddy variant of egg nog with matcha tea, powdered chocolate and whisky, and wassail – a brandy and apple-based drink, inspired by his trips "wassailing" in his native Cornwall. There is also The Flip, a variant of egg nog, which finds its routes in the colonial US in the 17th-century.
"There would be a punchbowl on the bar; in it there would be rum, spices, sugar, molasses," he says. "Then someone would take a hot poker [sometimes called a "loggerhead" or a "flip dog"] from the fire and plunge it into the punchbowl. That caramelises the sugar in there and creates a bitterness from the burning sugar. It gets warm to drink and it feels aerated."
If you want to impress your friends with your flip skills, it is still possible to pick up a loggerhead on eBay; Stephenson uses what he calls an "electric salamander" given to him by a friend at the Fat Duck restaurant.
While the renewed interest in mulling is perhaps helped by the modern thirst for hot drinks, the historical connection is clear. In earlier times, people would have relied on drinks to warm up. There are a couple of references to Purl in Dickens (he describes it as "a creature comfort"), while he and Swift wrote about "the Bishop," which is a sort of mulled port with fruit (the Cardinal is a mulled claret and the Pope is mulled burgundy).
Anistatia Miller, a drinks historian who, along with Jared Brown, wrote Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink, believes it goes back to the old Grecian or Chinese way of delivering medicines. "The monks in monasteries... would be asked to make these drinks. Later on, with things such as Purl, people got the idea that you could drink that way. And why not? It's cold here."
Miller and Brown have made mulled sloe gin, mulled white wine and even mulled Champagne.
"Bartending used to be something that was handed down from master to apprentice," Brown says. "The two World Wars killed off generations of bartenders, while prohibition sent the remainder off into other professions. This resulted in the ghastly mixed drinks of the 50s, 60s and 70s and it was a time when beer and wine consumption boomed. The chain had been broken. We are at the best time in history for boutique artisanal manufacturers who are reaching back to re-link the chain."
By Victoria Moore
Mulled wine is a holiday tradition at our house. Simple to make, the warmed wine and spices fill the home with a wonderful aroma. It's the perfect way to start any winter party. Cheap wine is okay for this recipe, just make sure it's something you would also drink cold. Tempranillo from Spain is one good option and Chilean merlot works well too, because it's sturdy and fruity but not so distinctive that it can't make a good canvas for the spices.
Ingredients to serve 6
1 bottle red wine
1 glass brandy or port
1 orange, sliced
1 cinnamon stick
1 pinch mixed spice
Sugar to taste (optional)
In a saucepan, gently heat the wine and spirit. Stick the cloves into the orange slices. Add the cinnamon, clove-spiked orange slices, spice and sugar. Simmer for 15 minutes and then serve.
From 'How to Drink' by Victoria Moore (Granta, £12.99)