Why Your Brain Instantly Associates Peppermint with Winter

Anna Horowitz
Anna Horowitz

Much like pumpkin spice owns the fall, peppermint is the undisputed flavor king of winter. And the more you learn about peppermint, the more you realize it makes perfect sense for the season of sleigh bells, sugar plums, and, you know, talking snowmen. Because peppermint itself is full of straight-up magic. It’s cooling, relaxing, aromatic, and delicious—and it has all kinds of legit medicinal uses. We’ll get to those in a sec, but first, how did peppermint get matched up with winter in the first place?

For that, you have to jump in the way-back machine and set it dashing through the snow for Cologne, Germany, in 1670. That was the year a local choirmaster got an idea for how to keep antsy youngsters quiet in church. He asked a local candy man to make sugar sticks, and he handed them out to the kids before the long holiday services.

Anna Horowitz

The sticks were made of white hard candy, and they either came in the shape of a cane or were bent into that shape by the choirmaster (presumably before they hardened). Either way, they worked like a charm, and others picked up on the idea, spreading it from Germany throughout Europe.

Eventually, people started decorating these “canes,” and by the time the 19th century dawned, they had acquired a) red stripes and b) peppermint flavor. (If someone ever tells you there’s symbolism in the red-and-white coloring, kindly direct them to this Snopes article.)

Candy canes made the jump to the US in the late 1800s, and, thanks to good ol’ American ingenuity, they got hooked onto the global consciousness in the 20th century. That’s when mass production started in the fairly unlikely location of Albany, GA. Bob McCormack, a candy cane manufacturer in that city, was having trouble with his operation—specifically, with the bending-the-stick-to-create-the-cane part. It took forever, and he was losing merchandise due to breakages.

Anna Horowitz

Enter Father Harding Keller, a Catholic priest who also happened to be McCormack’s brother-in-law. He invented a machine that could flawlessly bend the canes. It was a development that not only streamlined McCormack’s production but also revolutionized the industry. Candy canes turned up everywhere after that, and today, more than 1.7 billion of the treats are made every year, most of them, of course, being shipped for the holiday season.

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Peppermint has been winter’s signature flavor for literally centuries, and these days, you’ll find the cool clean flavor in everything from candy canes to mochas to tins of peppermint bark. You’ll also find it in the delicious and versatile Smirnoff Peppermint Twist, a limited time offer guaranteed to level up your holiday cocktails.

Peppermint’s winter takeover began with candy canes, then expanded outward—to say the least. Today, peppermint infuses dozens of holiday edibles, from Oreos, mochas, frappuccinos, and chocolate to ice cream, candy, cakes, liqueurs and limited-edition spirits, for just a partial list.

There’s also peppermint bark—a relatively recent star in the holiday firmament. The tasty combination of dark chocolate, white chocolate, and crushed peppermint has been around since the 1960s but only came on strong in 1998, when a well-known housewares chain came out with their own signature version and made it happen in a big way.

Anna Horowitz

Peppermint’s also huge in winter cocktail culture, from candy cane garnishes and crushed candy cane rims to schnapps, various liqueurs, and peppermint-infused spirits. There’s no shortage of peppermint variations on classic cocktails, including Peppermint Martinis, Peppermint White Russians, and numerous versions of peppermint hot chocolate adult beverages.

All of this from an unremarkable-looking herb indigenous to the Middle East and Europe. But the thing is, peppermint just looks unremarkable. Scratch the surface and you get, in addition to a very pleasing aroma, a stunning array of uses as a flavoring agent, a scent (think candles, soap, and cosmetics), and a reliever of various physical ailments. Peppermint works as an anti-inflammatory agent; it can relieve muscle spasms and indigestion; and it can inhibit bacteria and microorganisms, and fight nausea. A 1996 study in Germany found that peppermint was equal to acetaminophen as a headache reliever.

Some more factoids about this amazing herb:

  • Peppermint is a natural hybrid of watermint and spearmint.
  • Both ancient Egyptians and Romans used peppermint for medicinal (and culinary) purposes. Romans used it as ground cover between walkways because they enjoyed the pleasing scent.
  • Ancient Greeks believed it could cure hiccups.
  • The plant is harvested when its oil content is highest, and always collected in the morning before the sun dries out the oil in the leaves.
  • Despite the herb’s origins, 75% of peppermint is currently produced in the United States.
  • Peppermint oil is the most widely used essential oil in existence.

So next time you’re enjoying a peppermint hard candy, a peppermint mocha, or a peppermint-accented adult beverage this winter, know that your treat’s main ingredient comes with some serious, centuries-old cred as the flavor of the season. Which is a lot more more than the unofficial flavor of fall can say!