By Amy Packham
“It tastes like fairy liquid!” my friend blurts out after testing the fifth mulled wine of six we’ve tried that evening. “Are you sure that’s not because we just washed these mugs up with fairy liquid?” my other friend asks. Mine tastes good – not the best, but good – so we swap mugs and she has another sip.
“Better,” she says. “Still not my favourite.” We sink back the rest of our mugs, our heads slightly warmed from the previous four bottles.
It’s not a bad way to spend a Friday night.
There’s nothing that makes me feel more festive than the sweet, sweet scent of mulled wine circling around my flat. I’ve always made my own, but what with buying the wine and all the ingredients (vanilla, star anise, cinnamon sticks, orange), I realised it was not only taking more time, I was also spending more than I needed to get that buzz of warm mulled wine in my belly.
So this year, I’ve made a pact – I’m stopping the faff and buy ready-made mulled wine from a supermarket instead. But then came the big question: which one to buy? In a bid to answer it, I got the hard task of trying ready-made mulled wine from Lidl, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose and M&S and enlisted the help of five friends to review them with me – because this is certainly not a job for one.
You have to actually review them for me not just drink them,” I say, as everyone arrives.
We are ready. It’s Friday night, it’s pouring down outside and we’re cosied up in my living room. “You have to actually review them for me not just drink them,” I say, as everyone arrives. They agree, and one asks how this is all going to work. I haven’t quite figured it out. So we decide to we do it one by one, separately heating the mulled wine up, we might not remember what the previous one tasted like if there are big gaps between us drinking them.
She has a point. After a brief discussion, we decide to do the tasting in two batches – three and three. “And we should do it blind,” says another, adding to the complexity of the process.
It tastes a bit like hot squash, like the one they serve you at Christmas market.”
I head off to the kitchen, pick three bottles [Aldi, Lidl and Tesco] and pour the bottles into three separate saucepans, letting them simmer before they come to the boil. I get 12 mugs out the cupboard and separate each bottle into four mugs – some of us have to share. There’s a big “ooohh” as I walk back in the living room holding them.
They’re treating this seriously and I’m very happy about it.
It’s 8.04pm. “It doesn’t smell very nice,” says one friend as we pick up the first mug of wine [Aldi, but they don’t know it]. We take a swig and look at each other quizzically. “It’s fruity,” says one. We give nods of agreement. “It tastes a bit like hot squash, like the one they serve you at Christmas markets, diluted down a bit.” We all agree it’s easily drinkable, but quite sweet.
The next one [Lidl] is a completely different taste. “Well, that smells better,” my friend says. It smells stronger of booze and tastes much spicier, with a bit of a kick to it. A few of us add sugar to sweeten the slightly bitter taste – this tastes like grown-up mulled wine compared to Aldi’s.
The final in this batch is Tesco – it’s our favourite. It tastes like a mix of the previous two – “like the squash but with spices” – and a healthy dose of booze. Very drinkable and not sickly, we all agree. The winner so far.
During the break, I tell the girls what was what. They’re slightly disappointed in Lidl, and rooted for Aldi to be the winner. We break for snacks (Lidl breaded cheesy bites, no less) and ponder whether we should’ve swished the wine around our mouths and spat it out like they do during wine tasting. We conclude our way – drinking it all and finishing the mug if we so wish – is much better.
I make the next batch in the kitchen while the girls pick up random mugs off the coffee table and finish of what’s left in them. First up is Waitrose – “It’s a lot stronger, I can smell it from here,” says one of my friends as she reaches towards a mug, before adding two seconds later: “I LOVE it.” This is a winner so far, I can tell. “Yes, I like that,” agrees another. We discuss the spices we can taste – orange and cinnamon – and agree it smells the most festive. This bottle has 11 per cent booze, but it smells like more. “This would be lethal after two or three sips,” my friend jokes. “I could get drunk off that smell.” There’s no beating around the bush, it’s the best one (although the girls think it’s M&S, not Waitrose).
It’s 8.53pm. Nearly four bottles down, and we’re starting to feel the booze kicking in. M&S mulled wine is less orangery than Waitrose and a lot sweeter, although has quite a “sharp aftertaste” we agree. This is the favourite so far for one of my friends – it’s spicier than it is orangey, we conclude.
When we taste the final one, the sixth out of six bottles of wine, we’re reminded of the first one we tasted. Sainsbury’s mulled wine goes back to that hot squash taste. It’s very fruity, sweet, easy to drink, but smooth not spicy.
Everyone correctly guesses which wine is from which supermarket on the second batch. I ask for their verdict: 5/6 of us agree Waitrose takes the top spot, followed by Tesco as a runner-up. The thing is, none of them taste bad –(unlike when we tried festive hot drinks on the high street) but it really depends on what you like. A more squash-like fruity drink? Go for Lidl or Sainsbury’s. A stronger, boozy taste? Waitrose or Aldi.
By the end, we still have an array of mugs with half-drunk mulled wine on the coffee table, and spend the next hour picking up different ones and finishing them off. Because why not? It is Friday after all.
Waitrose – £5.49, 11% alcohol
Tesco – £3, 8% alcohol
Aldi – £2.79, 8% alcohol
Sainsbury’s – £6, 11% alcohol
M&S – £4.50, 12.5% alcohol
Lidl – £4.99, 9% alcohol