Every time the November-December continuum rolls around, the drinks menu of your favorite cocktail bar will subtly shift from the pumpkin-flavored beers of autumn to the winter ales of the holidays, the tiki drinks of the summer going by the wayside for hot toddies and hot, spiked cider. There's even the opportunity for a nip of creme de menthe in your hot chocolate. There's something particularly cheerful about a hot drink on a cold day, and many of us need absolutely every ounce of cheer we can muster these days. But there is one seasonal cocktail offering that I have never been able to throw in with. That beverage, my friends, is mulled wine.
The cartoonist Matt Leib has a one-panel that pretty much sums up my feelings. In it, a man behind a supermarket sample table is trying to beckon customers over to try some promotional goods. "Would you care to sample our mulled wine?" he asks. "It's gross, but seasonal." Yes. Every year we, collectively, take a lot of perfectly good red wine and add orange juice and mulling spices, slap it in a crockpot, and drink it as a seasonal delight. I have tried it in different combinations and under different banners: with honey, with cloves, with cinnamon sticks. And each time I cannot shake the idea that what I'm drinking is in fact a glass of microwaved, slightly adjusted sangria.
If mulled wine is your favorite thing ever, more power to you. We all have to take joy from life wherever we find it. But for me, cheap red wine gussied up and served between warm and lukewarm is an insult to the greatness that is cheap red wine. I am no snob when it comes to wine, except that I prefer it dry rather than sweet and I stay away from the Carlo Rossi. I'm perfectly fine with a glass from your standard corner-store $10-or-less selection. There is something kind of great about a red wine that you feel no qualms about pouring into a mug. And I understand, then, why it could be considered more of a cocktail ingredient than a stand-on-its-own kind of thing.
But stand on its own, cheap red wine does, and by cutting out the honey and spices from it can avoid having to scrub away the sticky, spicy residue from your electric kettle or slow-cooker the next morning. In a party setting, a big vat of tea to use for hot toddies usually goes a long way. You don't need mulled wine to make the spirits bright. Yellowtail Merlot works just as well.