Thursday, May 23, 2024

What is the Swedish Christmas Drink, Glögg, and Why Is It Trending?

Platters of cookies, candies, and cakes, as well as piles of gingerbreads shaped like pigs, bats, and teddy bears, cover the dining table. Seasonal pomander balls — whole oranges studded with dried cloves — are hanging in the windows, making the whole place smell like hot punch. There’s something else in the air, too. A heady, vinous, spicy scent with hints of cinnamon and ginger. You have arrived at the favorite Swedish wintertime, pre-Christmas exercise: a glöggmingel, a casual get-together where drinking glögg is the main event.

Germans have their glühwein, Brits drink mulled wine, and the French keep warm with vin chaud, but the Swedes are probably the most enthusiastic drinkers of what we call glögg. The warm, spiced wine has a rich history in cold Nordic countries. The founder of Sweden, King Gustav Vasa, is said to have gulped heated white wine sweetened with honey and sugar and spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and ginger.

Closing in on Christmas, every Swedish magazine, newspaper, food podcast, and television program publishes its own recommended glögg recipes. Shops stock specially designed punch bowls, pitchers, copper saucepans, and glass decanters to heat glögg and keep it warm. Sets of small cups, plates, and spoons, often passed down for generations in families, are dusted off each year during the winter season.

But despite the drink’s ancient status, glögg is changing. In recent years, producers have gotten more and more creative, tweaking the main ingredients of glögg and adding nouveau flavorings, base alcohols, and other third-wave riffs. Today, you’ll find varieties made with red and white wine, yes, but also apple juice, ice cider, blueberries, gin, beer, birch sap, and whiskey. The traditional spices — cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and orange peel — have been joined by flavors like meadowsweet, lingonberries, vanilla, cloudberries, cherry, saffron, chocolate, marzipan, and even tiramisu. The modern glögg trend has even moved beyond drinks, with recipes circulating for glögg-flavored cheesecakes, sourdough breads, and glögg-spiked hot pot.

Large volumes of glögg can now be bought ready-made across Sweden in bottles, bags in boxes, and cans, particularly at the retail alcohol monopoly Systembolaget. (Here in the U.S., Ikea’s your best bet.) The Swedish chain stocks more than 90 different glögg varieties and reportedly sells nearly 3 million liters of glögg per year. (This doesn’t even include the rapidly growing market for non- and low-alcoholic glögg.) But micro distilleries have gotten in on the glögg game too, sold in big-city shoppy shops and direct from small-scale makers across Sweden.

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Stockholm Bränneri, located in an old Jaguar repair shop, makes a version that infuses apple wine with raspberries, aronia berries, and pomace from the Gothenburg city winery Wine Mechanics. The infusion is fortified with housemade dry gin and blended with a bunch of traditional Christmas spices.

“Every vintage has its own additional, unique flavor profile,” Stockholms Bränneri co-founder Anna Wikner says. “The 2023 vintage features allspice and rosemary.”

The distillery also makes a glögg-inspired, ready-made negroni mix called Winter Negroni, based on the distillery’s dry gin and red bitters, mixed with cold-pressed cherries and black currants. In the nonalcoholic version, which is based on black currant juice, the gin is replaced by juniper berries, and the bitters by rowan berries, lingonberries, and wormwood.

“Both versions can be enjoyed either over ice with a slice of orange or heated on a cold winter day,” says Wikner.

On the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, Elisabeth Hellström of the tiny Hellström gin company makes one of the best gin-based glöggs on the market. She uses a base of Swedish organic apple cider infused with blackcurrant, sloe berries, Christmas spices, and her own gin. She loves to serve the glögg with a stick of cinnamon and a slice of apple.

“Ever since I started my own distillery, I’ve dreamed about making my own version of glögg,” says Hellström. “I got inspired by the use of sloe berries in sloe gin in the UK, and I thought that would fit together nicely with glögg spices and gin.”

“We wanted to move the boundaries for what glögg is,” says Dennis Bejedal, founder and CEO of the small Norrbottens Destilleri, located in the very north of Sweden. The brand combines cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon with fresh seaborn and even jalapeno, which lends a lingering, warm aftertaste. Bejedal’s vision was to create something that’s still recognized as glögg but can also be served as a digestif and enjoyed year-round.

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“We got messages from people in the middle of the summer telling us they were sitting with their feet in the water on the beach, loving to drink our glögg cold,” says Bejedal.

Of course, glögg is still most commonly made at home, and one of the flashiest recipes — based solely on vodka, sugar, and spices — isn’t new at all. It comes from the world’s oldest open-air museum, Skansen, in Stockholm. To start, cut dried figs and ginger into pieces and macerate in vodka with traditional glögg spices (cloves, etc.); let the mixture infuse in a saucepan for at least six hours. Then, heat up the vodka and set it on fire with a match. Suspend a large sugar cube over the pan and carefully spoon the burning vodka over the sugar so it slowly melts and pours down into the pan. The liquid should become lightly golden in color and smell irresistibly of caramel. Snuff out the fire with the pan lid and serve immediately in small glass cups, each garnished with raisins, blanched almonds, and a small spoon. Trevlig helg! (Happy holidays!)

Per Styregård is an author and journalist living in Stockholm with his wife and son.
Tilda Rose is a Finnish American artist and illustrator working in editorial and children’s books.
Copy edited by Kelli Pate.

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