What is Wassail?
This question could also be phrased: “What is Wassailing?” – because Wassail (the drink) was actually named after Wassail-ing – an old English ritual associated with ensuring a good apple harvest for the following year. Supposedly the name comes from the phrase “Waes Hail”, which was a common Middle English greeting.
As with many very old traditions, (and very old recipes alike) there are a lot of different versions of what Wassailing actually was – it differed from town to town. In one example, the villagers from the town of Carhampton would find and…
form a circle around the largest apple tree, hang pieces of toast soaked in cider in the branches for the robins, who represent the ‘good spirits’ of the tree.” – Source
Then the group would sing to scare away evil spirits and (I assume) please the good spirits into providing a good harvest. In other traditions, the wassail-soaked bread would be buried at the tree’s roots instead of hung from the branches – but always intending to please whomever was “in charge” of ensuring a good harvest.
A strange tradition? Yes, absolutely. But the drink associated with the tradition – now commonly known as “Wassail” is a lesser known and very delicious cold weather punch that is definitely worth a bit more attention.
Before I forget – take a good look at that picture above. Those are not citrus rinds (my initial thought) but are actually pieces of toast! (Those English folks really like their toast…) It’s rumored that we have Wassail to thank for the phrase “toasting” with a drink. (Source) And since “Waes hail” roughly translates to “to your good health”, it makes perfect sense.
What’s in the Bowl?
As mentioned earlier, there is no “one” recipe for Wassail. The traditional ingredients are both extremely varied across time and geography. However the common ingredients that I found across most recipes were:
- Apple Cider – This makes sense, given that it’s supposed to ensure a good apple harvest!
- Mulling spices – Similar to many winter spices mixes – nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, cloves, allspice, cinnamon etc.
- Eggs – Yep – this ingredient is sometimes excluded because nowadays we’re wimps about drinking raw egg, but this was a very common ingredient in the past. Like with cocktails, it adds a frothy top!
- Booze – Traditionally this was often included, but I’ve seen many modern recipes without. Alcohol used varied from mulled wines to mead ale, sherry or brandy.
- Finally, Toast! This was used as a sop in the drink, but also used (as mentioned earlier) as part of the tradition to appease the trees. This is very frequently omitted from modern recipes, and for good reason – I could only imagine the crumbs of soaking toast are not quite the ideal garnish.
Wassail, the Cocktail
If you’re looking for a punch drink to serve as a holiday special at your bar – look no further. The possibilities are endless for a great wassail recipe and it’s very easily created in large volumes – perfect for a bar special. But don’t take it from me – take the example of the Jeffrey Bell at PDT who put Winter Wassail on their menu in 2012.
Here are a couple of great Wassail recipes:
Note: I haven’t tried these yet, I’ve only had wassail prepared by others. I will definitely try a few and report back with my favorite!
- Alton Brown’s Wassail
- Traditional Wassail from the Nourished Kitchen
- Last but not least (of course) is Jeffrey Bell’s PDF Winter Wassail