Tom’s Wassail Bowl
The word wassail is best known from the Christmas carol, “Here We Come a-Wassailing”, (aka “Here We Come a-Caroling”). Well, that Wassail everyone is singing about was originally a drink. And “wassailing” meant going around town drinking and drunkenly singing Christmas songs. More on the history below.
There is no one authentic recipe for Wassail, it has existed in innumerable iterations. The only consistent theme is that it is served hot, usually with some spices, and in a large “Wassail Bowl”. Beer or ale served as the original base, while apple cider anchors most contemporary versions, though brandy and different types of fortified wine also make appearances. Non-alcoholic bowls of Wassail are also common, which are similar to your standard mulled cider.
With no concrete roadmap to work off of, I formulated my own personal recipe that combines multiple ingredients that have entered the Wassail bowl over time. But ultimately, I think authentic wassail, and wassailing, is less about the drink and more about enjoying the company your keeping, whether it's sharing a drink, or singing a Christmas carol (or, hopefully, both). So feel free to adjust this as desried. Waes hael!
2 cups mulled cider
2 cups medium dry sherry (or another fortified wine like madiera, marsala, or tawny port)
2 cups hard apple cider (ideally a drier style or sour/gose style beer)
1 cup Calvados or cognac
For the mulled cider
fresh apple cider (about 3 cups)
6 cinnamon sticks
½ teaspoon cloves
½ teaspoon whole allspice
½ teaspoon cardamom pods
1 whole nutmeg
Make mulled cider. Combine apple cider and spices in a large pot. The spices can be bundled in a cheesecloth bag for easy removal later.
Bring to a boil then lower to a simmer and cover for 25-30 minutes. You want to end up with about 2 cups.
Remove the spices or cheesecloth bundle and stir in the sherry/wine, cider/beer, and Calvados.
Cover and heat gently until. Do not boil or you'll cook off the alcohol.
Ladle into punch cups, grate some fresh nutmeg on top and let the wassailing begin.
If you make a bowl of Wassail, let me see!
Tag a photo with #socialhourcocktails on Instagram.
Fortified Wine Options
Fortified wine is a wine that has some spirit added to it, vermouth is one example - though it also has some botanicals added infused into it, which doesn't make it a good option for Wassail. However, the following categories of fortified wine will all work very nicely.
This best option for this recipe is a medium dry sherry with some nutty, oxidized notes. Williams & Humbert Dry Sack sherry or Lustau East India sherry are great options. If in doubt, go for a drier style, like an Oloroso, Amontillado, or Palo Cortado. For those, you may want to add a touch more cinnamon syrup. I wouldn't use something thick and syrupy like a Moscato or Pedro Ximenez.
Madeira is a type of fortified wine that is similar in some ways to sherry. It has been partially oxidized, so it has a rich, nutty quality. Rainwater Madeira is a style that works particularly well in this recipe. But in either case, when substituting for Madeira, the sugar amounts may need to be tweaked for balance.
Port tends to be a bit sweeter so it wouldn't be first choice for this recipe, though "tawny" style port is a has been paritally oxidized so it has a nuttiness that works well here (more about Port here). You can probably omit the cinnamon syrup if using port.
Marsala is a fortified wine from Sicily that is nowadays often used Iltalian American cooking (chicken Marsala anyone?), but is quite delicious on its own. And in this drink.
Wassail recipes have called for an eclectic array of non-alcoholic ingredients to be added into the bowl as well. Baked or boiled apples were common, which were whisked in to create a pulpy, stringy texture. This version is also known as Lambswool. Other additions included eggs and cream. At one point, even toasts and cakes were tossed into the mix to serve as what was then known as “sops”. This incidentally has a connection to the meaning of “toasting” someone while drinking.
As bizarrely intriguing as they all sound, I forgo the toasts, cakes and boiled apples and simply use grated nutmeg (the salt of holiday cocktail recipes). Though if you want a little more visual flair, dried apple slices are a beautiful, and appropriate, Wassail garnish. This is a great recipe.
The Story of Wassail
Wassail’s origins stretch at least as far back as the 12th century, long before any of the Christmas carols we know today were written.
Wassail, and “wassailing” appears to have originated in West England. Back then it was an annual chanting ritual carried out around Twelfth Night by farmers in the local apple orchards. The purpose was to stave off evil spirits and help conjure a bountiful apple harvest the following year. This involved hitting the trees with sticks and making a loud racket in general. Naturally, there was often some drinking as well. Cider or spiced ale would be poured on the trees' roots, and no doubt enjoyed by the participants, or wassailers, as well.
The word 'wassail' comes from the Anglo-Saxon expression 'waes hael', which basically means 'good health’. A common response to which would be “drink hael”. So wassailing was also synonymous with drinking to one’s health, which certainly fits into the holiday realm.
Over the course of the renaissance, as holiday traditions changed, wassailing evolved from a custom practiced by rural farmers to a facet of urban Christmas celebrations. The physical bowl that held the drink became regarded as a symbol of communal merriment and the word took on many forms. It could refer to the act of drinking the drink, the drink itself, as well as the drink’s effect. So if one went out wassailing, and had too much wassail, one would get wassailed.
By the 17th century wassailing had begun to settle into the Dickensian caroling tradition we associate it with in the carols today. In this incarnation, the bowl was carried by a group of carolers from house to house give away drinks as they sang. Or in some cases, it was the carolers themselves asking, or rather singing, for drinks. As in “bring us some figgy pudding, and a cup of good cheer.” In fact, the original version of “Here We Come A-wassailing” depicts the carolers doing just that:
Our wassail cup is made
Of the rosemary tree,
And so is your beer
Of the best barley.
Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring.
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.
Panhandling for booze is not quite in the spirit of what I imagine Wassail to be. Thankfully, there are countless other ballads, poems and folk songs that mention Wassailing in a more jovial light. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorites, “Wassail! Wassail! All Over the Town”:
Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white, and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl is made of a maple tree;
We be good fellows all;--I drink to thee.
So whether it’s lively a band of carolers spreading good cheer, or a rowdy gang of lushes looking for a drink - in all likelihood it was probably both - wassail has been steeped in Christmastime tradition for a good long while, and it’s certainly here to stay. In one form or another.