The winter solstice is just days away, making this week the darkest time of year in our Northern Hemisphere.

Over the centuries, humans worldwide have battled winter’s darkness and hunger with bonfires, candles, holiday lights and piping hot drinks, often flavored with fragrant spices.

As this year’s Hanukkah celebrations draw to a close and Christmas nears, here are some of my favorite hot spiced drinks to enjoy with friends and family this holiday season: Mulled wine, cinnamon cider, chai tea and cinnamon hot chocolate.

Mulled wine is one of the most traditional winter drinks, especially around Christmas. Served hot or warm, it is made with red wine — usually port or claret — with orange zest and juice, sugar, brandy (if desired) and an assortment of spices that can include cardamom pods, cloves, allspice, peppercorns and cinnamon.

Mulled wine

Allow 1 large cupful of water, with sugar and spices to taste, for every pint of wine and/or brandy. Combine ingredients in a large pot and simmer. Do not allow mixture to boil. Heat for 20 minutes and serve in a large, heat-resistant punch bowl. Garnish with cinnamon quills and nutmeg.

Hot Cinnamon Apple Cider

Following the same method as above: Allow 1 cup of cider to 1/2 to 1 tsp. spices for this one, and experiment with different spices to add flavor. Cloves, nutmeg, lemon peel and ginger are all complementary flavors that can add amazing taste. Don’t forget to add a cinnamon stick as a garnish; it not only looks pretty, it elevates the taste and fragrance.

For a heartier cider, you can add a shot of rum and brown sugar to taste.

Chai Tea

(two small cups)

1 cup water

1 tsp. loose-leaf black tea

1 1/2 cups whole milk

2 Tbsp. Whole Spice Chai

1 1/2 Tbsp. sugar

In a saucepan, combine the water and the black tea and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Add Whole Spice Chai and mix. Add milk and sugar. Bring to a boil again, then reduce the heat and cover. Simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the tea into the cup and discard the spices or loose tea. Serve immediately.

Cinnamon Hot Chocolate

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(1 cup)

Whipped cream makes this an even more special treat and if you are up for it, a dash of Aleppo pepper will render it sublime.

6 ounces whole milk

2 ounces light cream

1/2 ounce cinnamon syrup, or to taste

1/8 tsp. Whole Spice Instant Espresso (optional)

2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, grated or chopped

Whipped cream (optional)

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, whisk together the milk, cream, syrup and optional espresso powder until hot but not boiling. Add the chocolate, take the pan off the heat (or lower heat, watching carefully to make sure the mixture does not boil) and whisk until melted and well combined.

Shuli Madmone owns Whole Spice, a spice shop in the Oxbow Public Market at 610 First St. in Napa and online at wholespice.com. Do you have a question about herbs, spices, cooking or food, or a recipe you’re looking for — vegetarian, vegan or otherwise? Drop him a note at wholespicenapa@gmail.com.

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