Tom’s Wassail Bowl
Wassail is a traditional Christmastime drink with a long and winding history. To cut right to the chase, there is no one authentic recipe, there have been innumerable variations over the centuries. Most of them revolve around some type of hot mulled beverage served in a large bowl, the “Wassail Bowl”. The oldest recipes used beer or ale as a base, but others versions included apple cider, brandy and different types of wine. Today non-alcoholic bowls of Wassail are also common, which are often similar to your standard mulled cider.
So in my mind, Wassail can pretty much be any hot, spiced punch enjoyed with friends and family during the holidays. Wassail, and wassailing, is about being in the company of others, whether it's drinking a drink, or singing a song.
In light of that, I formulated my own personal recipe for a Wassail bowl. My criteria was that it be distinctly different from mulled wine and mulled cider - two of my other favorite holiday libations - while retaining elements of the drink’s origins - which you can read more about further down the page - and, of course, be delicious.
2 750 ml bottles Rainwater Madeira or Medium Dry Sherry
2 cups Calvados
2 - 12 oz bottles Amber ale or hard cider
3/4 cup brown sugar - or to taste
6-7 cinnamon sticks
5-6 slices of ginger about the size of a quarter
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon whole allspice
baked apple slices for garnish - optional
Combine the Madeira, sugar and spices in a large pot. The spices can be bundled in a cheesecloth bag for easy removal later.
Cover and gently heat until it simmers lightly, but don’t let it fully boil. The goal is to not over-steep the spices and retain the central flavors of the Madeira.
Let it bubble for 15-20 minutes or so, then strain out the spices, or remove the cheesecloth bundle. If you’re planning to serve it later, you can store this in the refrigerator.
When ready to serve, warm up the mixture and add the Calvados and beer. Beer could be added in the mulling stage, but adding it at the end produces a festively frothy texture. Just be sure to stir thoroughly to ensure all carbonation is released.
Garnish with the apple slices, ladel into punch cups and let the wassailing begin.
If you make a bowl of Wassail, let me see!
Tag a photo with #socialhourcocktails on Instagram.
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 that’s very different from red wine or cider. Rainwater Madeira is a lightly sweet variety that works beautifully in this recipe. If you can’t find any, look for a medium dry blended sherry, such as Williams & Humbert Dry Sack. If in doubt, go for a drier sherry, like an Oloroso, rather than a thick, syrupy blend. But in either case, when substituting for Madeira, the sugar amounts may need to be tweaked for balance.
In addition to its shifting alcoholic ingredients, over the ages Wassail recipes have called for an eclectic array of non-alcoholic ingredients to be added into the bowl as well. Most prominent fixtures were baked or boiled apples, 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 decided to forgo the toasts, cakes and boiled apples in my recipe. Instead, I used some dried apple slices as a garnish. You can omit them of course, but they are easy to make and quite beautiful. This is a great recipe.
The Story of Wassail
For many, the word wassail relates to Christmas carols, as in “Here We Come a-Wassailing”, which some modern versions have converted to, “Here We Come a-Caroling”. But the origins of Wassail which stretch at least as far back as the 12th century, long before today’s Christmas carols 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.