Historical Winter Drinks

by Rhett Williams

Winter is upon us! It's the holiday time of year and that means one (among many) exciting thing: holiday drinks! To celebrate this momentous occasion I am currently doing a month-long series on my site about seasonal beverages beginning with the historical and continuing on to modern drinks created by bartenders from Vancouver, Victoria, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans. I'll be sharing the highlights right here on ShakeStir.com, and there's no better way to begin than at the beginning.

One of the oldest of mixed drinks of any kind is mulled wine, ale, or cider. Just about every culture has at least one variation on this theme, all stemming from a practical necessity. Before proper storage techniques were invented, food and drink spoiled fairly quickly, so one had to be creative in finding ways to either delay spoilage or at least to make the taste of stale food more tolerable. As early as Roman times spices and sugar or honey were added to wines to mask stale flavours, a practice typically done in early winter once the fall harvest began to spoil. Supposedly these mixtures go back even further to ancient Greece as well, where they were called "Hippocras" and were used as tonics. Over the next thousand years, the practical process became winter tradition, and Glühwein, Glögg, vin chaud, greyano vino, izvar, Glintwein, Caribou, Hippocras, and Negus came to be (to name just a few). Recipes number too many to count, but the basis is the same: add some spice and sugar to heated wine. If you want a traditional (and better) drink, avoid recipes calling for fruit juice or too much sugar.

Here is a fairly simple recipe for the Nordic mulled wine (dating to the early 17th century) called "Glögg." This is a combination of consistencies between recipes with a simplified process.


  • 1 bottle of dry red wine
  • 1 bottle of port
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 orange peel cut into strips
  • 1/2 tsp of cardamom seeds
  • 10 whole cloves
  • 1/2-1 cup of sugar (to taste)
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 3 small slices of peeled ginger
  • 1/2 cup dark raisins
  • 1/2 cup blanched almonds
  • brandy
  • akvavit (optional)

Combine wine, port, water, orange peel, cardamom, cloves, sugar, cinnamon, and ginger in a pot and simmer at low heat for 20 minutes, being careful not to boil. (For maximum flavour, steep this mixture once cooled in the fridge overnight). Start with 1/2 cup of sugar as that's likely all you'll need. Soak the raisins and almonds in akvavit in a shallow container or re-sealable bag (again, leave overnight if possible). Strain the mixture into warmed mugs. Add 1 oz of brandy to each, along with a few of the raisins and almonds, and garnish with a fresh orange peel stabbed with a clove if you want to get fancy.

In close relation to the history of mulled wine is that of punch, being a mixture of wines or spirits with fruits and sugar dating back to at least the 16th century. Through the next two-hundred years the need for faster and smaller version of punch led to the creation of the Collins, Daisy, Fizz, Cooler, and Cobbler. Further simplification of these drinks by the mid-18th century removed fruit from the equation, particularly in winter, when the drinks were often made hot. These medicinal and later recreational tonics became the Sling, Julep, Smash, Sangaree, Skin, and of course the Toddy. A Hot Toddy is a wonderful thing in the cold months, and making one is as simple as adding a teaspoon of sugar to 2 oz of a spirit and topping with 3-4 oz of hot water (throw in a dash of bitters if you're feeling ahead of your time).

Adding a couple things to this recipe yields one of my favourite winter drinks, one that warms the soul like nothing else: Hot Buttered Rum. Butter was a staple ingredient in mixed drinks from the 16th to 18th centuries, and adding it to ale along with some spice was a typical cold remedy at the time. The English Navy and American colonists in particular enjoyed this beverage, though they of course preferred rum.

Hot Buttered Rum (Jerry Thomas, 1862)

  • 1 wine-glass of rum [2 oz]
  • 1 tsp sugar [1/2 oz 1:1 simple syrup]
  • 1 tsp spices (allspice and cloves)
  • 1 piece of butter as large as half a chestnut
  • Fill tumbler with [3-4 oz] hot water

Add ingredients to your mug, then top with water and stir.

The darker the rum the better (Thomas specifically suggests Jamaican)

Next is the classic Flip, finding its birthplace in the 17th century American tavern. Molasses or sugar, spices, and rum were added to a bowl of beer (likely to mask spoilage as discussed), and a red hot loggerhead (firepoker) was inserted into the mixture. This caused frothing the sugar to caramelize - a process called "flipping." By the 19th century, eggs were added and the mixture was tossed between pitchers (perhaps another origin of the word "flip"?). By the Jerry Thomas era, the Flip had shrunk down to glass-size and in the 1887 revision of his seminal bar tome, seven cold and six hot flips were listed, all with basically the same recipe. The most worthy of repeating is the basic cold flip:

Cold Flip (Jerry Thomas, 1887)

  • 1 tsp powdered sugar [1/2 oz 1:1 simple syrup]
  • 1 wine-glass of liquor [2 oz]
  • 1 fresh egg
  • 2-3 lumps of ice
  • A little water
Dissolve the sugar in the water, add the liquor, egg, and ice, shake up thoroughly. Strain into a bar-glass. Grate a little nutmeg on top, serve.

And on the subject of eggs, we reach the most important of all holiday drinks: eggnog. It is believed to have derived from the 14th century English drink, "posset," a mixture of hot milk curdled with wine or ale and usually spiced. Eggs again entered the picture, and the drink was often consumed for breakfast. It found new popularity when travelling to the American colonies where milk and eggs were more abundant. The fortified wines and brandy usually used were rarer and expensive, so naturally the Americans turned to rum instead, which was about as cheap as water at the time. Just about everyone had their own recipe (including George Washington), and it was enjoyed in the colder months likely due to its hearty nature, but also possibly because it was made like punch and left sitting out for days. Like mulled wine, the recipes are aplenty, but to stick with the 19th century theme, below is the by-the-glass traditional eggnog recipe from Thomas. This is a quick and simple way to make a small nog, particularly if you're behind the bar.

Egg Nogg (Jerry Thomas, 1862)

  • 1 table-spoonful of fine white sugar, dissolved with
  • 1 table-spoonful cold water [or sub 1 oz 1:1 simple syrup for both]
  • 1 egg
  • 1 wine-glass [2 oz] Cognac brandy
  • 1/2 wine-glass [1 oz] Santa Cruz rum
  • 1/3 tumblerful of milk [3 oz]

Fill tumbler with shaved ice, shake the ingredients until they are thoroughly mixed together, and grate a little nutmeg on top.

For full histories, etymologies, and more recipes, stay tuned on my site.

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