Real, traditional wassail is a treat. In authentic recipes, sugar-roasted apples float in a fragrant bowl filled to the brim with hard cider and brandy – all infused by aromatic sweet spices like cinnamon, allspice, cloves and ginger.
But more than just a warming drink, wassail is a celebration of ancient rituals and blessings, of wintertime revelry and yuletide debauchery. It’s a drink that is steeped in deep and rich history, and even better: it’s absolutely easy to make and impossibly delicious when done authentically.
What is Wassail?
Wassail is a sweet, spiced alcoholic drink made from hard apple cider and brandy. Whipped eggs are traditionally added to the mix, just as they’re added to eggnog and other holiday drinks. Foamy, whipped eggs gives the drink a lovely light creaminess. It’s also flavored with powdered ginger, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and nutmeg and sweetened with cane sugar or sometimes honey. Sugar-roasted apples are often added to the wassail bowl where they infuse the drink with a rich apple flavor and a pleasant touch of sweetness.
Why Do We Serve Wassail at Christmas?
Wassail, first started as a greeting or as a toast. Waes hael, revelers might say holding up a mug of spiced cider. Eventually, as things go, wassail referred less often to the greeting and more often to the drink.
It’s a yuletide drink served on the coldest days of winter, when its warming notes of spice and booze are particularly welcome. It is typically served on Christmas Eve, which traditionally marks the beginning of the Christmas season, and Twelfth Night – or January 5th – which marks the end of the Christmas season. And it’s this time of year that wasn’t traditionally noted not for its holiness, but for its rampant and unyielding debauchery.
Wassailing itself – the habit of visiting neighbors, singing carols and sharing drink – is a long-standing tradition related to another ritual of the seasons, mumming. Mumming is the practice by which masked revelers would entertain people in public and often gain entrance into their homes, only to demand booze and money for their efforts.
And so it is with wassailing, too, sometimes wassailers would travel from house to house, singing carols and demanding drink; other wassailers would venture out of the home with a trimmed bowl of spiced cider, offering it in the street for a few pennies.
But in my favorite of the wassail traditions, the spiced cider was offered as an ancient honor to the trees. In wintertime, wassailers would prepare the traditional wassail – soaking pieces of bread, cake or toast in it – and travel from apple orchard to apple orchard blessing the trees in effort to ensure a good harvest for the coming year. They’d then bury the pieces of soaked bread at the trees’ roots or hang them in the trees’ branches to appease the tree spirits and feed them well until the next harvest. By blessing apples trees with wassail, which is made with apples, you can ensure healthy orchards and a good harvest for the coming year – with plenty of wassail in the future.
What Goes into Wassail?
The very earliest versions of wassail likely feature mead and roasted crab apples, while slightly later versions feature hard cider, brandy and spices. If you avoid alcohol or want to serve the drink to children, more modern, dry recipes, skip the booze and include soft apple cider or juice which is also delicious.
Mulling spices are included in most wassail recipes, and these include cinnamon, allspice, cloves and sometimes nutmeg. These mulling spices bring out the sweet notes of apple and balance particularly well with hard cider and brandy.
As with many old English drinks including another favorite of the holidays: eggnog, wassail also included foamed eggs which enriched and fortified the drink.
Egg is rich in nutrients like choline and biotin, but it’s the saturated fat found in egg that proves to be its greatest benefit as it relates to alcohol. Alcohol challenges the liver, but saturated fat helps to mitigate the effect of alcohol on the liver, meaning that moderate and occasional consumption of alcohol in conjunction with foods rich in healthy fats – like eggs, may help to offset any potential damage. Life is, after all, about balance.
How do you make Wassail?
For a simple wassail recipe, all you need to do is add a few mulling spices and a sweetener to hard cider, allowing it to warm on the stove until the spices release their aroma and infuse the liquor with their flavor.
To make traditional and authentic wassail, you’ll first want to core apples, fill them with sugar and roast them. And while the apples roast, you’ll set a pot of hard cider, brandy and spices to simmer on the stove. Then you’ll beat egg whites until rich and foamy, and temper the eggs with just a touch of the hot wassail before combining it all and straining the drink just before serving.
How to Serve Wassail
Wassail is served during the Christmas season, which traditionally begins on Christmas Eve and lasts until the Twelfth Night – or January 5th. In the United States, Wassail is also served at Thanksgiving and throughout December up to New Year’s Eve.
Serve wassail warm in mugs. You can keep wassail warm by serving it in a soup tureen or in a Dutch oven on the stove over very low heat. Because Wassail contains egg and whole spices, you’ll want to strain it before serving it, to prevent any bits of coagulated egg or spices to end up in the mugs of your guests.
- Heat the oven to 350 F.
- Take a sharp paring knife or a melon baller, scoop out a hole at the top of the apples at the stem end without fully penetrating the fruit. Continue scooping the core out of the apple until you reach the seeds, and remove them. Then fill each apple with unrefined cane sugar, reserving any leftover sugar. Place the filled apples in a baking dish, and bake them for 45 minutes at 350 F.
- While the apples bake, pour the brandy and hard apple cider into a pot set on the stove over medium-low heat. Whisk in the powdered ginger and any remaining sugar. Drop in the cinnamon sticks, cloves and allspice berries.
- When the apples have finished baking pull them out of then oven and allow them to rest.
- Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, and beat the egg yolks in a separate bowl until thick and creamy. Fold the egg whites into the egg yolks, until uniformly combined, but taking care so that the egg whites maintain their loft. Temper the eggs by pouring a half-cup up hot wassail into the eggs and whisking to combine, and then whisk the eggs into the wassail.
- Strain the wassail through a fine-mesh strainer into a punch bowl or soup tureen to keep it warm. Drop the baked apples into the bowl, and serve warm with a sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg.
Where to Find Mulling Spices
With the exception of powdered ginger, you’ll want to add whole spices to your wassail bowl. Whole, fresh spices offer the best flavor and most potent fragrance. They can also lose their potency when stored for an extended period of time, exposed to too much light and heat. You can buy whole, organic and fair-trade spices online here in bulk.
Drinks That Are Like Wassail
If wassail’s not your favorite drink, there’s a few other wintertime drinks that you can make. Here’s some of our favorites:
Mulled Wine is enriched with orange, cinnamon, cloves and other spices and excellent served warm during the autumn and winter months.
Cranberry Mors is like cranberry juice, only better. It’s a spiced, nonalcoholic drink that’s sweetened with the lightest touch of honey.