Taste test: mulled ciders to see in the New Year

SAF-appleIs there anything more alluring than the thought of wrapping your chilled fingers round an aromatic mug of mulled stuff? Not really, which is why at this time of year pubs all over the country shuffle their bar mats up a little to make way for a hefty, battered soup kettle that slowly but surely emanates the smells of the season up the nostrils of its patrons – sweet, spiced, citrusy alcohol.

In years passed, by default, this liquid has fallen into the wine category, and those used have been indisguisably cheap. This year however, the vine has been overtaken by the apple, which is decidedly on trend. The nice thing about this takeover is that, not only is cider a good old homegrown product, we can also afford to use the good stuff even when we heat it up.

Whether you’re satiating the thirsts of customers in a pub or simply keeping your friends and family merry and warm, mulled cider is a winner. It isn’t the most complex of drinks to make, but no doubt Christmas has taken its toll – the turkey has been stuffed and eaten, the presents wrapped and unwrapped and, well, you’re meant to be on holiday, so save yourself searching the spice rack, we've roadtested a top selection of pre-bottled mulled ciders for you to see the New Year in with.

Mulled ciders

Oranges might be the only fruit

A year ago, Heston Blumenthal started a luxurious food line in our smartest mainstream supermarket, Waitrose, famously hiding a whole candied orange in a Christmas pudding. Well, this year he’s also put some orange into his mulled cider.

There’s been less hype, but Heston’s Spiced Mulled Cider (£2.99/75cl; 5.5%) is a warming fruit punch that tastes like it would heal a cold – not only does its sunshine yellow colour bear resemblance to a vitamin C-enriched potion, its baked Bramley apple nose has a dusting of powdered ginger to clear the passages. On the palate it’s citrus all the way, with a lovely caramelised orange finish.

We’re told that the base cider is a blend from the apples of Herefordshire, Worcester and Gloucestershire, but the USP of this mulled cider is its heavy-handed addition of ginger.

One for the cider lovers

Once Upon a Tree don’t produce a pre-bottled mulled cider as such, but it does sell its Putley Gold (online shop, BristolCiderShop.co.uk; £4+/75cl; 7.5%) with a bag of spices to heat it with, so I’m very slightly bending the rules to allow them into the taste test.

A heady, sweet, allspice nose leaps out of the glass with this one, but that sweetness is less apparent on the palate. Deep amber, this is a full-bodied, textured cup of warmth that manages to retain a sharp bite on the finish and won’t leave people declaring that it ‘doesn’t even taste of alcohol!’ either – it does, and it’s all the better for it.

The sBiddenden's Monk's Delightpices (courtesy of the sachet) are classic – cloves, cinnamon and allspice – and they don’t overwhelm the flavours of the Putley Gold. It’s on the drier side so you could add a spoon of honey or sugar, but mulled ciders (like mulled wines) seem to get sweeter as you drink on. So, if you’re planning on spending hours watching fireworks this New Year’s Eve, then this might be the one for you.

Spice and all that's nice

When I first plunged my nose into Biddenden's Monk’s Delight (online shop, beermatt.co.uk, Cobbetts in Dorking & elsewhere; c. £4.50/1litre; 7.5%), I could have sworn it was mead, such is the pungency of the honey content. Although I'm not sure if you could describe it as classically spiced, it’s still fairly complex with honey-soaked oranges upfront and a palate cleansing bite on the finish. It’s definitely a sweeter cider, with crisp, crunchy Cox apples also present to provide some acidity to counteract the honey.

However, the sweetest of the bunch was Cornish Orchards Wassail Mulled Cider (CornishFoodMarket.co.uk; £5.50/1litre) made from apples from gardens and orchards within Cornwall and Devon. It’s a sumptuous blend of juicy oranges and classic spices on the nose, and it’s all oranges on the palate.

Beyond the bottle

We didn’t have time to roadtest any spice sachets, but it’s worth noting that when it comes to mulling spices, the ones that work with wine and cider are pretty interchangeable. Several good ones on the market include Steenbergs Organic Mulled Wine Sachets (Steenbergs Organic online shop; £1.75 for 5) and Riverford Organic mulling spices (Riverford online shop; £1.95/6g). The latter specifically ask to be thrown in with cider or apple juice, but will work well with wine if some citrus segments are tossed in while your alcohol is heating up.

Whether you’re using sachets or grinding your spices from scratch, sometimes a glug of something stronger doesn’t go amiss. You need something bracing at this time of year, after all. There are several options.

Firstly you could keep it in the orchard with our 2011 favourite from Julian Temperley, Somerset Cider Brandy, or you could stick with the more traditional whisky. Alternatively you could introduce some King’s Ginger – the latter contains shredded ginger from China and Spanish lemon oil alongside a drop of 20-year-old Speyside single malt Scotch whisky. It’s delicious stuff that was initially made for an English monarch, so add it to your cider and feel regal.

Hopefully that's enough to get you started. Do let us know if you’ve got any favourite tips or recipes for mulled cider, or if you know of any pre-bottled efforts that we haven’t included. We'd love to hear from you.

Henrietta Clancy, cider editor