Confessions of a Mixologist: Wassail
“Wassail! Wassail! All over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink unto thee”
- The Gloucestershire Wassail Song
Wassail is both a noun and a verb. Neither one is easily defined. The noun refers to a broad class of old-fashioned spiced drinks and the verb, to a range of Pagan and Christmas related activities.
Let’s start with a brief overview of the drink. The first thing to know is that wassail is an ancient beverage with written mentions dating back to the 13th century, meaning it was likely already well established. It’s not just one beverage though. Over the centuries the name has been applied to a variety of drinks, based on mead, cider, ale, wine and brandy or some combination thereof. Sometimes it was even made with eggs, a very common practice at the time. Generally served warm, although some spiced winter beers have borrowed the name in the modern era, the one constant seems to be that it is a spiced beverage served around the winter solstice.
It is a drink of joy, a drink of good fortune, a drink of community and shared experience served from a wassail bowl, passed from person to person. In fact, wassail bowls were de rigueur back in the day. They ranged from rustic maple bowls to expensive crystal affairs, but the most coveted bowls were made of a dense wood known as Lignum Vitae (wood of life). This Caribbean wood was thought to have healthful, medicinal properties, therefore people believed that Lignum Vitae bowls exponentially improved prospects for the health and good fortune of any wassailer lucky enough to imbibe from one.
Speaking of health, the etymology of the name, wassail, traces back to a Norse phrase loosely meaning, “be of good health”. The invariable response came to be “drinkhail” meaning “drink well (or healthfully)”. The tradition of serving pieces of toast with wassail for dipping and sopping is, in fact, the origin of the phrase, “raise a toast” when drinking to someone's health.
That is the briefest of overviews, but it is only half the story. We still have the action of wassailing to consider. The earliest rituals appear to surround celebrating the year’s apple harvest and entreating the orchard itself to be healthy and bountiful in the coming year. In the apple producing regions of Britain, groups of revelers would roam from orchard to orchard singing songs of encouragement to the trees and reciting incantations in hope of warding off evil. Grateful orchardists would reward them with a wassail bowl filled with steaming hot, spiced cider blended with ale and roasted apples. General merriment would likely ensue.
Over time, and with the introduction of Christianity, the ritual morphed into a door to door sing along with wassailers “raising a toast” at every house visited. Eventually, it seems, this ritual became debauched enough in the eyes of certain puritanical elements that there was a crackdown on this wilder side of Christmas. Remove the wassail bowl and what is left is the more modern and certainly more staid tradition of caroling.
No one is saying caroling isn’t a perfectly pleasant, if sober, tradition but it is high time for all good wassailers to reclaim their birthright. Make your home ground zero for a new era of wassailing by mixing up a batch of this ancient elixir and sharing it with one and all. We predict that any carolers that appear at your door will be easy converts (reverts?) after being handed a warming mug of spicy fortification.
This mixologist, for one, must confess to being on the side of bringing fun back. To that end, we present to you a well-researched and well tested version of wassail designed to transport you to an apple orchard in the days of yore. It’s full of cider, ale, fortified wine, roasted apples and a load of exotic spices. There are even instructions for diving into the rich, foamy realm of creamy, egg enhanced wassail. The eggs are purely optional, but highly recommended. They are heated but would still fall into the governments warning category of “under cooked”, so if that concerns you leave them out or opt for pasteurized eggs. If sopping up spicy booze with bread appeals, feel free to serve toast for the full experience. The one thing you may want to skip is the communal bowl. That’s okay, some wassail bowls approached the size of bathtubs, so even back in the day they were often more punch bowl than loving cup.
So, to the fine people of Binn-landia, and indeed to all the world, we raise a toast to your health and to a prosperous new year. May your orchard (whatever that is to you) be laden with fruit. Wassail and drinkhail!
- 6 medium sized sweet/tart apples such as Jonathans, cored
- 1-1/3 cups natural brown sugar
- 1 cup natural apple cider
- 1 four-pack Old Speckled Hen cans
- 1 four pack J.K.'s Scrumpy Hard Cider cans or other hard cider
- 1 bottle Blandy's Bual 5-Year-Old Madeira or Lustau Captaz Andres Cream Sherry
- 12 whole cloves
- 12 whole allspice berries
- 3 green cardamom pods
- 2 (2-inch) stick cinnamon
- 1-1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1-1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Peel of half an orange
- Peel of half a lemon
- 6 large eggs, separated
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Place the apples in a small glass baking dish so they fit snuggly but aren’t touching. Fill the empty cores of each apple with brown sugar and sprinkle with a pinch of salt (salt can be omitted). Pour natural cider into the bottom of the dish. Roast until tender, about 40-45 minutes.
- Make a sachet d’épices by putting cloves, allspice, cardamom and cinnamon onto a small square of cheesecloth, gathering up the corners and tying it all into a little sack with twine.
- dd Ale, Hard Cider and Madeira to a large pot over low heat. Add sachet, ginger, nutmeg and citrus peels. Bring the mixture to about 120°F. Do not boil. Maintain temperature to meld flavors while the apples roast.
*Steps 5,6 and 7 are optional. If not using eggs, skip to step 8.
- Add egg whites to the bowl of a stand mixer, whip until stiff peaks form.
- Put the egg yolks into a separate bowl and beat until light in color and frothy, approximately 2 minutes.
- Fold egg whites into the yolks to combine. With the mixer on low, temper the eggs by slowly drizzling a cup of the hot Wassail into the eggs. Whisk tempered mixture back into the pot of Wassail.
- Add the whole roasted apples and liquid from the baking dish to the Wassail, stir to combine. Ladle into tempered glass cups, grate a little nutmeg on top (if eggs were used), throw in a cinnamon stick if you like and serve.
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