Mulling it over: Spiced wine head to head to head

A three person, three bottle mulled wine tasting.

HM= Homemade mulled wine. Westborn/St. Julian (Paw Paw, Michigan, USA) Market Red + Trader Joe’s Harvest Blend Herbal Tea + sugar.

WB= Witches Brew (Leelanau Cellars, Omena, Michigan, USA)

LR= Revenge of the Living Red (Sandhill Crane, Jackson, Michigan, USA)


HM: 12%

WB: 12.5%

LR: 12%


HM: $8 (wine only)

WB: $8 (Hollywood Market, Madison Heights)

LR: $18 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)


HM & WB: About the same. Dark burgundy.

LR: Beet red, almost blood red.


HM: Sweet with cinnamon and orange.

WB: Big cinnamon with some cherry juice.

LR: More typical red wine. Dry.


HM: Tart orange. Tannic.

WB: Easy Drinking. Sweet cherries, cinnamon. Not much else.

LR: Spicy with a little orange zest and cherry.


HM: Chewy. A little sweet orange.

WB: Sweet & light.

LR: Spicy dried chillies. Ancho?

Amy’s thoughts

HM: Smells sweet but tastes dry. Good once you get used to it.

WB: Cinnamon bomb. Almost too sweet.

LR: Drier. Finish burns. Don’t like it too much.

Pete’s thoughts

HM: Don’t like it. Bad, bitter aftertaste.

WB: Like it better. Cinnamon is good!

LR: Like WB but drier. Like it the best.

Parting words: I had wanted to do a mulled wine tasting for a while, but having three bottles open at the same time is a bit much, even for me. Normally Mrs. Sipology Blog would help out but she’s currently very knocked up so I invited friends of the blog Amy and Pete over to help.

For the homemade mulled wine, I had used TJ’s Harvest Blend Herbal Tea for mulled cider back in the fall with very good results so I thought I’d try it with wine. I thought it was OK, but not as good as the two pre-mulled wines. I kept adding more sugar which made it better but still not good enough. Next fall maybe I’ll start work on perfecting a mulled wine recipe. My own creation is not recommended.

Witches Brew is a big seller for Leelanau Cellars (known for their seasonal table wines) and it floods into grocery stores statewide in September and lingers well into the winter. The Halloween theme has always been a little puzzling to me, since I associate mulled wine with the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Pete assured me that he and many other people do associate mulled wine with the fall hayride season. At any rate, cinnamon is the dominant flavor, but clove and nutmeg also go into the brew. It has it’s share of haters, but I think it’s a decent buy for the right price (<$8). It’s NV so beware of overly dusty bottles, but they drink fine at a year or a little more after hitting the shelves. Recommended.

Sandhill Crane’s goes with a hipper zombie theme. Their original spiced wine was Night of the Living Red ($17 from the winery). According to the website it’s made with “cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, orange peel… and essence of fresh-squeezed zombies!” Revenge is infused with all those (including the zombie juice) plus estate grown chiles. The chiles add a nice shot of heat to the wine and set it apart from products like Witches Brew. Some, like Amy, may find this off-putting but I loved it. It’s $10 or more than WB but the taste is worth it, plus $2 from every Living Red bottle sold goes toward the college fund of the artist who created the label. That’s added value. Revenge of the Living Red is recommended.

Trader Joe’s Vintage Ale Triple-Triple Head to Head: 2013, 2014, 2015

Brewer: Unibroue, Chambly, Quebec, Canada2015-12-21-15.33.33.jpg.jpeg

Style: Spiced dark ale

ABV: 9%

Price: $6

Me= Me

Jessica= J

Brian= B

Served in snifters.

Appearance: Coffee brown with a big, but short-lived head (all).


Me: Orange, ginger and malt on the nose. Light on the palate with a little gingerbread. Mild finish.

J: Smells fruity but doesn’t taste fruity.

B: Nose and palate are very different. Much less flavor on the palate than there is aroma in the nose. Mild. Watery.


Me: Mild nose, mildly effervescent on the palate. Spicy and stronger on the palate than 2013. Booze more obvious. Favorite of the three.

J: Not as spicy. More malty. Palate is more consistent with the nose. Finish lingers in the tongue. Elusive whiff of chocolate.

B: “ooh!” Much better on the palate. Agree with J. Malt is prominent but there’s underlying clove and nutmeg. Favorite of the three.


Me: Stronger on the nose and in the palate but less balanced than 2014. Orange peel and potpourri nose, malty on the palate.

J: Stronger “beer” flavor. Lager-like. Smells younger, a little grassy. Favorite of the three.

B: Spices are barely there, except for some clove and nutmeg at the end. Least subtle of the three. Strong tasting.

Parting words: Every year around this time, I buy at least three bottles of that year’s Trader Joe’s Vintage Ale. I always plan to drink them six months to a year apart but sometimes I forget they’re in my cellar or I get thirsty and drink one early. I forgot about my last 2011 and I drank it at about three years old and I drank my last 2012 shortly after that. I decided to get serious this year and do a three way head to head tasting. Normally I would enlist my wife to help, but she’s pregnant, so I enlisted the help of a beer-loving couple we’re friends with, Brian and Jessica.

We tasted over dinner (all three were OK with food) and I tried to take notes as best as I could. 2013 was the least favorite for all of us. It wasn’t bad, it was just bland on the palate. Jessica preferred the stronger taste of the 2015, but Brian and I liked the 2014. That said, we all agreed that 2014 and 2015 were both enjoyable pours. One remaining question is whether this beer rebounds after an apparent dip after two years in the bottle, like wines sometimes do. Maybe next year we can answer this question! Trader Joe’s Vintage Ale is recommended new and at a year old.

Atwater Summer Time Ale

Maker: Atwater, Detroit, Michigan, USAwpid-20140804_170659.jpg

Style: Wheat ale brewed with lemon peel & grains of paradise.

ABV: 5%

Purchased for $9/6 pack

Appearance: Dark copper with a light foamy head. Slighly cloudy.

Nose: Malt, mandarin orange, peach.

Palate: Medium bodied and effervescent. Lightly roasted malt, hint of yeast, balanced by some acidity.

Finish: Fruit then a bit hit of bitterness. Lingers for a long time with a bit of stickiness on the lips.

Parting words: This Atwater’s take on the summer wheat ales that Michigan brewers have made popular (we can all name at least one).

This one is different than its cousins, though, because of its bitterness and much more subtle fruit flavors. If I hadn’t read the label, I would never have known that lemon peel was used in the brewing of this beer. That’s not a knock, though. Some of these types of beers can be too fruity and ham-fisted in their use of fruit and spice. If anything this is a little too far on the other side of the spectrum. There’s a little too much bitterness and richness for a summer ale. Seems more fitting for fall.

Still, it’s enjoyable and the price is typical for microbrews. Atwater’s Summer Time Ale is recommended.

Noel de Calabaza

Noel de CalabazaMaker: Jolly Pumpkin, Dexter/Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

Style: Oak-aged, spiced sour ale

Notes: Blend 16, bottled November 19, 2012

Vintage: 2012

ABV: 9% or so.

Purchased for $11/750 ml

Appearance: Coffee brown with a robust foamy head on first pour.

Nose: Malt, balsamic vinegar, clove.

On the palate: Medium bodied and effervescent with underripe plum, hops, clove, aged balsamic vinegar

Finish: Fairly clean and short but with old, ashy oak that lingers for a long time.

Parting words: Noel de Calabaza is another holiday beer that defies expectations. It’s sour but in a more subtle way than many from Jolly Pumpkin. The oak rounds the whole thing out nicely. As you can tell from my notes above, it reminded me a lot of balsamic vinegar, the good aged kind. It doesn’t strike me as a particularly festive beer, but it’s really good. The price is acceptable. Noel de Calabaza is reccomended.

The Naughty Ginger

Maker: B. Nektar, Ferndale, Michigan, USA.Naughty Ginger

Style: Spiced, hopped mead

ABV: 6%

Appearance: Pale gold and pretty fizzy.

Nose: Ginger, honey, spice.

On the palate: Light, effervescent and spicy. Easy on the entry, not much in the mouth but some light spice.

Finish: Much more assertive after a gulp. Heat lingers on the tongue, Madras curry powder, a bit of gingery soapiness.

Parting words: The Naughty ginger is a much more drinkable ginger mead than the Schramm Series Ginger Mead B. Nektar put out a few years ago. That was like being tied down and having raw peeled ginger stuffed into every orifice. The ginger flavor in that wasn’t aggressive, it was downright violent.

This ginger is naughty but not a sociopath. The hops and coriander balance out the ginger and give it a pleasant curry taste that is fun drinking and even food friendly. This is a very successful mead and very much worth picking up. Naughty Ginger is recommended.

El Mole Ocho

Maker: New Holland, Holland, Michigan, USAMole-no-vintage-front-021412-front

Style: Spiced ale

Vintage: 2011

ABV: 8.4%

Appearance: Cloudy chocolate brown

Nose: Chocolate milk, tiny bit of red pepper.

On the palate: Sweet and medium-bodied. Hot chocolate, chipotle, roasted malt.

Finish: Fairly dry, all things considered. Tabasco sauce, chocolate syrup.

Parting words: This was an enjoyable beer. Not anything close to a go-to, but oddly refreshing and enjoyable after supper on a cold winter night. I haven’t had any other beers spiced like this so I can’t speak to how it compares to others like it, but it is recommended. Probably best to drink at no older than 1 year old, though.

Vander Mill Cider Masala

Maker: Vander Mill, Spring Lake, Michigan, USA

Style: Spiced Cider

ABV: 6.8%

Appearance: Cloudy gold and effervescent.

Nose: Clove, ginger, star anise, crisp apple.

On the palate: Medium-bodied, slightly tart. Apple pie, sweet curry, ginger chutney.

Finish: Tart and spicy. The tartness tickles the cheeks for several minutes afterwards.

Parting words: If there’s a cider equivalent to B. Nektar meadery, Vander Mill is it. They release a number of one-off experimental bottlings like this one.

Cider Masala is a cider infused with Indian Masala spices. It’s an interesting sip, and as an experiment it works. I don’t see it becoming a go-to cider, but that’s not the point. Vander Mill Cider Masala is a recommended.

Cinnamon Girl Hard Cider

Maker: Left Foot Charley Winery, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Style: Spiced cider (infused with cassia sticks)

ABV: 5.2%

Appearance: Old gold. Persistently effervescent.

Nose: Crisp apples and a hint of spice.

On the palate: Full-bodied and sweet on initial entry. As the cider lingers in the mouth a bit, the cassia/cinnamon comes through. It’s not fiery or overbearing, it’s just a pleasant twist on what is already a delicious American-style hard cider. It’s like a liquid version of my mother’s apple crisp.

Finish: Sweet and slightly spicy. The sweetness lingers for quite a long time. Pure, crisp bliss from beginning to end.

Parting words: Cinnamon Girl works fine as either a dessert cider or a table cider, especially with Mexican cuisine. It works best as a sunny fall afternoon cider or a party cider for sharing. No matter how you drink it, if you love sweeter ciders, you’ll love Cinnamon Girl. Highly Recommended. Unfortunately it is only available at Left Foot Charley winery in Traverse City, Michigan. Call ahead to make sure they have it on tap.