Of Mulled Wine, Mince Pies, and Strategic Studies

December 18, 2015

To a 21-year-old American graduate student, Christmas time at the University of Exeter in England was a merry scene from a Dickens’ novel. Winding medieval streets and a horn ensemble softly sounding Christmas hymns on the corner as flurries gently fell amidst the dwindling twilight. The year was 2004. I moved to Exeter (pronounced “eks-ah-tah” in the Queen’s, not the American “eggs-uh-dur”) after undergrad to study international relations. But as all who study abroad come to know, education is much more about what one learns outside the classroom than in. This being Molotov Cocktail, it’s fair to admit these lessons often involve certain libations. So as the “Michaelmas” semester wound down (“Michaelmas,” or the Feast of Michael and All Angels, is celebrated on the 29th of September every year; it corresponds to what we Americans might more succinctly call the fall semester), I found myself with a few important takeaways.

First, temper expectations when invited to a thoughtful, European-hosted Thanksgiving holiday away from home. Even the best-intentioned Thanksgiving dinners hosted by the French will begin in disagreement over whether to say grace, and end in watching a drunken Euro-dance party. But there is turkey.

Second, there is no better birth control then defending George W. Bush and the Iraq war to co-eds at Europeans pubs circa 2004.

Little did I know that the third lesson would herald in a new annual Clauser Family Christmas tradition. I hurried home from Exeter’s high street amidst the snow, and the horns, and the hymns, late for a student/faculty Christmas party. Now imagine my disappointment when I saw no eggnog, no gingerbread men, and no snickerdoodles. Instead, sitting in a tall crockpot was a bubbling cauldron of purple with an overwhelming aroma of potent spice. “This,” a professor told me, “is mulled wine.”

Here, many American readers should recognize at least the name from the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. In it, Clarence the Angel orders “mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves.” After which, the bartender unceremoniously threatens to punch him in the face for ordering such a thing at his bar: “Look, Mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast.” But having committed the sin of not watching this classic in its entirety, mulled wine — whatever that was — was foreign to me.

As I stared at the drink, I couldn’t help but wonder what in the hell “mulled” meant. Clearly the wine wasn’t engaged in deep thought. As it is, “to heat and sweeten” is one of those obsolete uses of an English word that requires you to scroll to the bottom of dictionary.com to find. It’s the kind of word that only the British still use.

The mince pies, sitting next to the crockpot, sounded to me like something out of Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. But after reassurances that they contained neither rodent nor human remains, I was delighted to find that these small fruit-filled pastries had a kind of Fig Newton meets Shoo-Fly Pie taste and texture.

Alex Hecht, Molotov Cocktail’s editor, implored me to use this piece to offer readers a military history of mulled wine and its sidekick, minced pies, as they marched from Rome across Gaul (Glühwein), Scandinavia (Glögg), and eventually to England. As I was prepared to do no further research than summarizing the Wikipedia entries for each (here and here, respectively), I decided to take a different tact in two ways.

First, I want to share with WOTR readers my recipe for Exeter-inspired mulled wine, which has become as much a Clauser family tradition as claymation Rudolph and Clark W. Griswold’s full-blown, four-alarm, holiday emergency. I hope the libation brings you and yours a mug full of Christmas cheer:


3 liters of cheap red wine (Merlot? Cab Sauv? Port? Any will do, so long as it comes in jug form. Feel free to mix)
1 liter of water (fill the jug you just emptied about halfway)
¼ cup of sugar
10 cinnamon sticks
¼ cup of cloves
¼ cup of black peppercorns
¼ cup of allspice
2 oranges, zest and juice
2 lemons, zest and juice
~1 cup brandy (again, cheap)


Mulled wine is rather easy to prepare and basically a hot Christmas sangria. As you bring the wine and water to near boil, add the brandy, cinnamon sticks, fresh squeezed juice, and sugar directly to the wine mixture. Go easy on the sugar and brandy at first — as in war, it’s easier to escalate than de-escalate. You may wish to add the citrus ingredients (zest and remaining bulk) as well as spices inside drawn cheesecloth or another permeable bag like a sachet or plague bag, to harken to the drink’s medieval roots and add flavor without the “floaties.” Increase any of the other ingredients to taste (peppercorn, allspice, cinnamon, and brandy). Feel free to “play jazz” with other seasonal touches like maple syrup or honey. Stir constantly for at least an hour on low/simmer to ensure proper mixture (but no boil!). Serve in a mug garnished with a cinnamon stick.

Secondly, if it hasn’t been obvious, I want readers of War on the Rocks to take away from this article the clear superiority of the University of Exeter’s Applied Security Strategy program over WOTR co-founders John Amble and Ryan Evans’ alma mater, King’s College London’s (KCL) War Studies program.

Do both have great access to RUSI and Whitehall? Sure. Do both have world-renowned faculty? Check. But consider the following five facts — none of which have anything to do with mulled wine or minced pies:

5. For you Jane Austen fans, Exeter is nestled in the English countryside of Devonshire, not some noisy, busy city that no one’s ever heard of.

4. For navalists, Exeter sits near Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and shares faculty with the storied institution.

3. Exeter boasts leading American strategists Tom Mahnken and Frank Hoffman as fellows. Boom.

2. Face it: The only thing of note KCL has ever produced is blogs … and alumni with blogs. That’s it. You’re reading one. KCL hosts its own, Kings of War. And let’s not forget KCL alumnus turned Deputy Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy Andrew Exum’s famous Abu Muqawama.

1. But most importantly, while Theo Farrell runs KCL’s War Studies Department, just remember that Theo really came to fame at the University of Exeter, where I had the privilege of his supervision over my thesis as his student. Sorry, Theo.

So whether you plan to prepare yourself for the serious business of international relations and strategic studies in a hallowed institution like the University of Exeter, or a more modest school like the Central London Junior Community College (renamed King’s College London in 1994), I hope you do so with a warm mug of mulled wine, surrounded by family and friends this Christmas season.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


After the superb preparation offered by the University of Exeter, Michael Clauser worked for the administration of President George W. Bush in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill for Congressman Mac Thornberry, in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and for global tech giant Fujitsu. He was selected by the Center for a New American Security as a Next Generation National Security Leader. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of Fujitsu, the U.S. Navy, or the Brits. Pip! Pip! Cheerio!


Photo credit: Nick Webb