Wassail is a deeply rooted tradition in the Midwest and a popular regional staple throughout the cold-weather season. Every winter as the holidays approach, many Wisconsinites still take part in the age-old "wassailing of the apple trees," a ritual dating back to the fifteenth century that involves sprinkling wassail on apple trees to ensure a strong, healthy harvest and to keep the trees safe from evil spirits.
Wassail always blends apples and winter holiday spices, but the sweeteners and spirits often vary from recipe to recipe. This version comes from the Rittenhouse Inn in Bayfield, an area that leads apple production in Wisconsin. The cranberry juice is a perfectly tart counterpart to the sweetness of the apple cider and brown sugar; the bourbon lends a full, rich quality; and the ginger, pepper, and spices offer a final kick of flavor.
- 12 whole cloves
- 6 whole allspice berries
- ½ inch fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- 12 whole white peppercorns
- 1 gallon fresh apple cider
- 6 ounces cranberry juice
- ¾ cup packed light brown sugar
- 10-12 ounces bourbon
To make the wassail, wrap the cloves, allspice, ginger, cinnamon sticks, and peppercorns in cheesecloth and tie with kitchen string. Combine the cider, cranberry juice, brown sugar, and spice bag in a large pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
For each serving, put one ounce of bourbon in a mug and fill with hot wassail. Garnish with a dusting of nutmeg and a cinnamon stick.
Wassail: Medieval drink, modern application
Wassail, a warm, mulled beverage that cuts through winter’s chill, is more than just a drink.
It’s about the experience, the set of customs that comes along with the mug of steaming spiced wine or ale, that sets it apart, culinary historian Sarah Kernan says. Kernan recently defended her doctorate, a study on the history of cookbooks in England from about the 1300s to the 1600s, in history from Ohio State University.
“Wassail is a surprisingly complicated beverage,” she says by phone. “In short, it’s a warmed spiced ale or wine. A lot of the complexity comes not with the drink but with the customs attached to it.”
Wassail started off as a drinking toast with Danish inhabitants, and then was assimilated into English culture — the term “wassail” comes from Old Norse “ves heill,” transitioning to Old English “was hál” and Middle English “waes haeil,” all meaning something along the lines of “be in good health” or “good fortune,” Kernan says. It was a general toast used year round until the Middle Ages, when it became more associated with Christmas.
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At that time, special protocols in wealthier households dictated how the wassail should be served. A special vessel — the wassail bowl — was passed around for communal drinking. The bowls could be made from many different materials and were decorated with greenery and ribbons, Kernan says.
Wassail didn’t go mobile, she says, until the 1600s.
“It wasn’t just going to someone’s house, manor or castle to drink,” she says. “Wassailers went from home to home singing and toasting. At that time, they were of the poorer classes and expected payment in return. It wasn’t only a time of revelry and party, but also a time when social orders were reversed. It started an act of gift giving from superior to inferior classes, and it’s something we still see today in the form of the holiday tipping tradition. It’s a holdover from wassailing.”
Shortly after, the tradition made its way to America and lasted longer on South plantations than in the North leading up to the Civil War. Though it wasn’t called “wassailing,” the Christmas punch and surrounding traditions were very similar, Kernan says.
The drink itself has always been a heated spiced beverage, first starting out as just wine but expanding with the use of ale or cider. Garnishes also cropped up along the way, with roast apples, cinnamon sticks and curls of citrus rind dotting mugs and bowls throughout the ages. It’s a fairly flexible recipe, Kernan says.
Other variations on the warm spiced beverage are “Lamb’s Wool,” named after the fluffy clouds of whipped egg whites that rest on the beverage, and “Bishop,” “Cardinal” and “Pope,” variations on mulled wine that use the same spice recipe but change names based on the base wine used. For “Bishop,” use a port, while “Cardinal” uses a claret and “Pope” a Champagne. Once the mixture is prepared and warm, a flaming piece of paper is dropped into the pot, setting the surface of the beverage on fire.
“These really are something different to try besides eggnog,” Kernan says. “It’s a fun departure for that traditional Christmas beverage.”
Feel like trying your hand at crafting ye olde beverage?
Here are two recipes — one based off traditional recipes, one a modern interpretation — for your upcoming holiday party. If these seem like a bit too much work, a simpler recipe for mulled wine is also included.
Alton Brown’s Wassail
This traditional take on wassail includes both beer and wine and even creates the fanciful “lamb’s wool” out of fluffy egg whites on top of the beverage.
6 small Fuji apples, cored
10 whole allspice berries
1 cinnamon stick, 2 inches long
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Put the apples into an 8-by-8-inch glass baking dish. Spoon the brown sugar into the center of each apple, dividing the sugar evenly among them. Pour the water into the bottom of the dish and bake until tender, about 45 minutes.
Pour the ale and Madeira into a large slow cooker. Put the cloves, allspice and cinnamon into a small muslin bag or cheesecloth, tied with kitchen twine, and add to the slow cooker along with the ginger and nutmeg. Set the slow cooker to medium heat and bring the mixture to at least 120 degrees F. Do not boil.
Add the egg whites to a medium bowl and, using a hand mixer, beat until stiff peaks form. Put the egg yolks into a separate bowl and beat until lightened in color and frothy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg whites to the yolks and, using the hand mixer, beat, just until combined. Slowly add 4 to 6 ounces of the alcohol mixture from the slow cooker to the egg mixture, beating with the hand mixer on low speed. Return this mixture to the slow cooker and whisk to combine.
Add the apples and the liquid from the baking dish to the wassail and stir to combine. Ladle into cups and serve.
— Source: The Food Network and Alton Brown
Rittenhouse Inn Wassail
½-inch fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced
12 whole white peppercorns
1 gallon fresh apple cider
¾ cup light brown sugar, packed
To make the wassail, wrap the cloves, allspice, ginger, cinnamon sticks and peppercorns in cheesecloth and tie with kitchen string. Combine the cider, cranberry juice, brown sugar and spice bag in a large pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes.
For each serving, put one ounce of the bourbon into a mug and fill it with hot wassail. Garnish with a dusting of nutmeg and a cinnamon stick.
— Source: Epicurious
Alton Brown’s Mulled Wine
If wassail seems a bit too extreme, mulled wine is also perfect this time of year. Alton Brown’s recipe is a favorite in my household.
1 Tbsp. whole black peppercorns
1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, sliced
3 large strips orange zest
3 large strips lemon zest
In the basket of a coffee percolator (or, in my house, a crockpot) place the allspice berries, peppercorns, star anise, cinnamon sticks, ginger and citrus zest. Pour the wine and honey into the percolator. Attach basket, cover and let percolate for 1 to 2 hours. Serve hot.
What is a Christmas Wassail?
Wassail is a hot punch or mulled cider, served with or without alcohol.
There are so many lost traditions of the past. Very few remain today, such as the burning of a Yule log, stringing popcorn, and singing carols. The drinking of the wassail is one tradition that has stood the test of time and is a great way to bring in the New Year!
the hero, far-hidden no harp resounds,
in the courts no wassail, as once was heard.
Another earlier recording took place in 1066, during a toast before the Battle of Hastings
Pass the bottle and drink healthy
Drink backwards and drink to me
Drink half and drink empty.
Generally drunk from a bowl and shared with guests, friends, and family, the earlier recipes included mead, mulled cider, or brandy. Partakers would dip out of a community bowl as they toasted “Wassail!”
What Does Wassail Taste Like?
Friends Drift Inn Wassail Recipe respects our family tradition of growing apples. Our Kentucky-style Christmas holiday punch recipe features tart apple cider, coupled with cranberry juice, our citrusy orange marmalade and a robust bourbon.
Of course, there are spices. So many spices!
Warmed over the stove, or simmered in a slow cooker, the comforting smell of mulling apple cider with orange slices studded with cloves, wedges of red apples, cinnamon, allspice, and white pepper will have your kitchen smelling like the holidays should.
Apples combined with bourbon how can you go wrong?
You could simmer wassail with the bourbon, and it will be fine. Perhaps a bit more mellow. But we like to add the bourbon at the last possible moment. We want that bourbon kick of caramel and oak to shine through.
Rum Apple Cider Wassail
The word wassail comes from the salute waes hail, which was a common Medieval English greeting, and even farther back from a pre-Norman conquest Anglo-Saxon toast meaning "be in good health." From those beginnings, the term wassail was applied to a traditional, hearty drink of hot mulled fruit cider flavored with spices. The warm beverage was an essential part of the ritual of wassailing, a popular drinking and singing tradition in southern medieval England. The ceremony was meant to secure a good apple harvest in the following year by singing to the orchard trees. Later, wassailing also became known as the tradition of going door-to-door greeting neighbors with song during the winter holidays.
The earliest recorded recipes of wassail included warmed mead, an ale brewed with honey, which was then brewed with roasted crab apples. Later, the beverage became a mulled cider made with sugar and various spices like cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Today, wassail recipes are abundant, with home cooks putting their personal twists on the traditional historical drink. Modern recipes can begin with wine, fruit juice, or mulled ale with brandy or sherry added. Fresh apples or oranges are often added to the brew.
Our wassail recipe, which appears in the Country Inn and Bed & Breakfast Cookbook by Kitty and Lucian Maynard, calls for easy-to-find ingredients like apple cider and cranberry juice and gets its kick from optional rum and aromatic bitters. This drink is perfect for a party, can be served like a punch, and fills the house with wonderful, spicy aromas. Fresh non-alcoholic apple cider from a local apple orchard or cider mill is best, but you can substitute with store-bought ciders available year-round as well. This rum version is sure to warm you through any cold weather but is especially popular during the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
A citrus wassail with light spice flavors. It's made with apple cider, pineapple juice, orange juice, cloves, and cinnamon sticks.
Method: crock pot
Time: 1-2 hours
You can't go wrong with hot apple cider on a cold night, but this mulled wassail made with whole cloves and cinnamon takes it to a new level.
Time: under 30 minutes
Break out the mugs and make this hot, spiced, fruity tea. The combo of sweet cranberry juice with cinnamon, cloves and oranges makes the coldest winter day feel just a little warmer.
Time: under 30 minutes
A mulled cider like this one is the perfect finishing touch on a holiday meal. Bright citrus with warming spices and an optional pour of rum makes a perfect wintertime punch.
Method: crock pot, stovetop
Time: under 30 minutes
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Made with cinnamon, apple cider, cranberry juice, sugar, orange juice, whole cloves, allspice
Time: under 30 minutes
Made with cinnamon sticks, apricot halves, pineapple juice, apple cider, orange juice, whole cloves
Time: under 30 minutes
Made with allspice, orange, cloves, sugar, apple juice, cranberry juice, aromatic bitters, rum, cinnamon sticks
Method: crock pot
Time: over 5 hours
Made with rum, apple cider, cranberry juice, aromatic bitters, cinnamon sticks, white allspice, oranges
Time: under 30 minutes
Made with sugar, lemon juice, brandy, cinnamon, whole cloves, water, frozen cranberry juice cocktail, frozen raspberry juice blend concentrate, frozen apple juice.
Method: crock pot
Time: 2-5 hours
Made with cider, oranges, lemons, sugar, water, whole cloves, allspice berries, ground ginger, cinnamon sticks
Time: 1-2 hours
Made with cinnamon sticks, pineapple juice, orange juice, lemon juice, tea bags, sugar, whole cloves
Time: 30-60 minutes
Made with cinnamon sticks, ground allspice, cider, lemon juice, orange juice, sugar, ground nutmeg
Time: over 5 hours
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- 5-6 apples, cored (preferably crisp, sweet apples like Fuji or honey crisp)
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 4 cups hard cider, crisp and not too sweet
- 3 cups ale
- 2 cups sherry, (preferably oloroso)
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg, ground
- 1 teaspoon ginger, ground
- 2 cloves, whole
- 4 allspice berries, whole
- 6 eggs, optional
Garnish: apple slice and a cinnamon stick
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Put apples in a baking dish, and spoon brown sugar into the core of each. Add 1/4 inch water to the bottom of the dish, and place in the oven until softened, about 45 minutes.
- In a large sauce pot, add cider, ale and sherry. Place over low heat, and do not boil.
- In a square of cheesecloth, add cinnamon stick, cloves and allspice. Tie securely and drop into the warming pot with nutmeg and ginger.
- If adding eggs, skip to the next step. If not, let mixture simmer for 30 minutes and skip to step 11.
- Separate egg yolks from whites into two separate medium-sized bowls.
- With an electric mixer, beat egg yolks until frothy. Then beat egg whites until stiff peaks form.
- Beat egg whites into yolks until just combined.
- Slowly add 1/2 a cup of the warm cider mixture into the eggs while whisking the entire time.
- Whisk this mixture back into the cider pot.
- Add apples and baking liquid to the pot.
- Ladle into individual glasses, and garnish with an apple slice and a cinnamon stick.
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More than 100 pounds of honey were harvested this year from new, onsite beehives at Grand Geneva Resort and Spa, Lake Geneva. That opens up new possibilities for Nelly Buleje, the executive chef, who also draws from the property’s garden of vegetables and herbs.
Raw honey and honey sticks are sold at the resort’s retail outlets. Honey is drizzled in the granola bowl at Grand Café, one of several restaurants at the 1,300-acre resort. A salad vinaigrette uses the honey, too.
Although the ancient grain farro is a part of this recipe by Buleje, he says that barley, wild rice and brown rice are all good substitutes.
A great combination of flavors. It's a very soothing drink and since it's non-alcoholic it's perfect for any time of the day.
I saw someone say their cinnamon sticks are too big and messed it up. Â Are the McCormick Cinnamon Sticks the right size?
A standard size cinnamon stick is 3-4 inches long.
This is my favorite recipe, so far!! I went with to a friends family Thanksgiving and brought this. Everyone love it. I made a double batch and it was gone in a few hours. I made this size batch 5 days ago and kept it in the crockpot on warm when I was craving it it was warm and perfect. Just watch what size cinnamon sticks you buy. I wasn't thing about how tall the sticks were and put them all into if they were 1 stick. I found out after buying another jar of cinnamon sticks, which I found were half the size!!My first and second were so strong with cinnamon we couldn't drink it. It took another bottle of apple juice, in it to fix it up and tone it down. It got better, but was embarrassed. I didn't have time to taste it, before I left!! I have a new, 3rd batch and have corrected the problem. It's wonderful now. I left it simmer overnight and had put orange slices and fresh cranberries, which made a wonderful spin on the flavor. Try this variation. Thanks for the recipe!!
Couldn't find my Mom's recipe. Found this one and made it today for a family celebration. Everyone loved it. It's delicious!
Whole Cloves of what? Garlic? Is there ANYTHING else that comes in cloves? Is that why the recipe doesn't list WHAT the clove is?
Cloves are a common spice. They can be purchased whole (such as called for in this recipe) or ground.
My mother-in-law made this for Christmas every year, almost same recipe except she added 1Tbs of Nestea iced tea powder. Delicious!
I HAD THIS AT A CHRISTMAS PARTY. BEST EVER .
I put the spices in cheesecloth that was tied shut. I like Jackie's idea of having a bottle of rum next to it!
Do you have to add water to the frozen orange juice concentrate? Or just leave it as is? Thanks!
Do not add water. The apple cider replaces the water in this recipe
Not only very simple and inexpensive to make but it is also non-alcoholic. I have used a similar recipe for many years. I alwsys keep a bottle of rum next to the pot and let people add their own liquor as they prefer. Works like a charm.
we had this at an open house and so i'm hoping this is the recipe. sounds like it and i can't wait to make it.
I loved this recipe! It was SO easy to fix! My house was on a local Christmas tour of homes and I fixed this recipe. It made the house smell so warm and cozy. People raved about how good it was and one person has asked for the recipe so far! Thanks for sharing the recipe! I highly recommend it. I actually mixed up all the ingredients the night before to save time and them put them in the crock pot the day of the event.
I love that this recipe is so easy and that there isn't any added refined sugar! It's loaded with vitamin C and the spices are also good for you during cold/flu season. Excellent!
I made this drink every Christmas. I am making earlier and earlier every year. Making today. Taste great
So yummy, not too sweet, not too tart! Everyone raved about how good it was!
Holiday Nostalgia, Served Warm
I AM a Dutch-German-Hungarian-Polish-Russian-Jewish-American woman. Yet every December, I turn into a 19th-century British gentleman.
It’s a little embarrassing, this surge of Anglophilia. If I must think of myself as an occasional Englishman, I’d rather be, say, a soccer-loving, beer-swilling extra in a Ken Loach movie, not a Dickens re-enactor.
Still, I put up a Christmas tree. I cook a hefty rib roast, reserving its drippings for Yorkshire pudding. This isn’t a recent development: My mother, whose father was an unrepentant Anglophile, often made a roast on Christmas and sometimes followed it with plum pudding and hard sauce for dessert. (I usually swap that out for a big chunk of Stilton, served with port.)
But this year, I’m adding something else to my faux-English Christmas repast: a great big bowl of wassail, a hot winter punch made with cider, ale, spices and an optional garnish of toast. Yes, toast.
My hope is that it will warm up my holiday dinner guests, encourage them to linger a little longer at the table — and maybe even inspire us all to sing a wassailing song or two.
Wassail (pronounced WAHS-ul or wah-SALE) is enjoying a small revival in New York bars these days, particularly those with nostalgic tendencies, whipped up in big pots or slow cookers. But for those of us who have any active associations with wassail, they are probably musical. “Here We Come a-Wassailing” is about as likely to turn up on your supermarket’s holiday Muzak loop as “The Christmas Song” or “Frosty the Snowman.”
And therein lies the beauty of wassail: more than just another nice-tasting drink, it’s part of a long (if largely forgotten) tradition of celebrating the life that winter can seem determined to snuff out. It’s a fragrant, warming concoction mixed in bulk and set out for sharing, all but demanding that you call in a crowd. There’s really no such thing as wassail for one.
It’s a noun, a verb and even a salutation.
The word comes from the Middle English waes hael, a phrase entreating us to be hale, much like the toast “To your health.” The song we’re most familiar with (“Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green”) is a relative newcomer, from the mid-19th century.
Danny Lopez, the British consul general in New York, explained to me that wassailing is “an ancient ceremony that involves singing and drinking to the health of trees.” But many wassailers skip the trees, and instead go singing door-to-door, exchanging good wishes and drinks.
The historian Roy Christian, in his 1966 book, “Old English Customs,” described the apple wassailing that was still taking place in several villages in England’s West Country: “The villagers form a circle round the largest apple tree in the selected orchard. Pieces of toast soaked in cider are hung in the branches for robins, who represent the ‘good spirits’ of the tree. The leading wassailer utters an incantation and shotgun volleys are fired through the branches to frighten away the evil spirits. Then the tree is toasted in cider and urged in song to bring forth much fruit.” (This might explain the occasional use of toast to garnish the punch.)
Today, local historical societies keep the tradition alive, but it means little in the holiday celebrations of most Britons. Even the taste of wassail is a bit hazy to many who grew up with it.
Stephen Gardner, 50, a Brooklyn illustrator who often draws and paints bar scenes, remembers drinking the stuff as a teenager in Devon, in the West Country. . “I always considered it an old person’s drink,” he said. “It was very strong, but it was always something I remember being forced on me whilst I was waiting for my mate to get ready to go out to the pubs.”
The proper contents of the drink remain murky. On the Web forum of River Cottage, an English organization that offers courses in foraging, butchering and other traditional food arts, a commenter called chickenrun sent up flares in December 2008, writing: “Does anyone have a good traditional wassail recipe? We’ve looked online, but every one we’ve seen is completely different from the other!”
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As far as I can tell, four years later, chickenrun has received no recipe. I share the frustration, having encountered recipes for both wine-based and ale-based wassail. For wassail fortified with sherry, punctuated with pineapple juice and thickened with eggs. For wassail topped with bread, and with floating crab apples. There are, it seems, innumerable ways to make wassail, but what most share are apples (whole, in the form of cider, or both), spices and, frequently, ale.
What sparked my interest was the unusual wassail I sampled last winter at the Drink, a cozy bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Adam Collison, an owner, based his recipe on one he had learned while working at a Baltimore food shop. It is cider-based, but distinguished by sour cherry mash, which contributes a tanginess that offsets and mellows the apples’ sweetness. It was unlike any punch I had tasted before: faintly reminiscent of cherry soda, amped up by whiskey and a complex mixture of ginger, cinnamon, peppercorns, cloves, allspice, nutmeg and orange peel.
Wassail has other champions in New York. Lee Papo, the owner of Gordon Bennett, a British-inflected pub in Williamsburg, worked for years in English and Irish bars in New York. A friend who grew up in Brighton, England, gave Ms. Papo her family’s recipe, which requires ale and cider.
But at Gordon Bennett, which counts many English expatriates among its regulars, no one knew a thing about wassail. They do now. “They love it,” Ms. Papo said, in part because it makes the bar smell so good.
She ladles it from a pot into thermal glass mugs. “Usually one person at a table will order it, and by the next round everyone follows,” Ms. Papo said. “It definitely does bring people together. And the first winter we were open, there were major storms. I had a couple cross-country ski three times over the Williamsburg Bridge from the Lower East Side for some wassail. It was a very special New York moment.”
The bartender Jenn Dowds serves wassail at the Churchill, a Midtown Manhattan pub so steeped in Anglophilia that a loop of Churchill’s speeches plays in the restrooms. Ms. Dowds describes her own background as “American mutt: Polish, English, Scottish and Native American.” She didn’t grow up drinking wassail, but she and the bar’s English and Irish owners felt it was a natural for the menu.
“I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted to do warm winter drinks,” Ms. Dowds said. And as she researched wassail and its history, she fell into a familiar rabbit hole: Wine or cider? Which spices? Any garnish? After some tinkering, she developed a recipe that includes cider (both regular and hard) and Madeira, whose sweetness mitigates the bitterness in the ale. For large parties at the bar, she serves the wassail from a bowl. “The drink encourages a communal spirit,” she said.
Ms. Dowds took care with her research and experimenting, and it shows in her balanced, thoughtful recipe, which I’ll use for my holiday gathering. The ale and wine distinguish it from everyday mulled cider but without toast, eggs or other such curiosities among its contents, its flavors are familiar enough to appeal to all my guests.
Among the most faithful wassail boosters is the Royal Heritage Society of the Delaware Valley, which has kept the flame burning since 1982. Rob D’Amico, the caretaker at Ormiston Mansion, the old Philadelphia house where the society is based, has made the punch for the society’s annual Candlelight Wassail for six years. Mr. D’Amico got his recipe from one of the society’s previous presidents. But, he said, “she encouraged me to experiment with it a little, so there’s no hard and fast rule about the amount of cinnamon, cloves or sugar.”
The drink, he said, relaxes people. “After a cup or two, it seems to help some bashful folks to overcome their nerves when the singing begins.”
Judging from the pictures I’ve seen, the wassail at Ormiston Mansion looks like a scene lifted from Charles Dickens. And if any single figure can be blamed for perpetuating (perhaps even inventing) the notion of a traditional British Christmas, he’s the man.
“A Christmas Carol” reminds us that no one should be deprived a decent living, a hearty dinner, a bit of drink, a reprieve, a glimmer of holiday hopefulness. Scrooge turns around. Tiny Tim does not die. And wassail is not dead yet, either.
So go ahead. Embrace your inner Anglophile. Have your roast and Yorkshire pudding, your wassail and mince pie. God bless us, every one.
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