As with most things, I’m not sure when people first started drinking wassail. But it’s a pretty safe bet that the ancients of Europe knew and drank spiced ale or mulled wine, which is essentially what this particular drink is.
Roderick notes that “wæs hæil” was a Saxon greeting that essentially meant “be in good health” and that the Danes introduced the term to the Britons by the 12th century as a drinking toast. Over time, Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night became traditional times to drink such spiced ale. At Carhampton near Minehead in West Somerset, England, the drink became associated with apples. To this day, many go hang pieces of toast soaked in a spiced cider drink on apple trees to “wassail” them. Then they sing a special song to encourage the trees to bear fruit.
I rather like this idea–Yule is the “welcome back” holiday, and I think it’s a nice gesture to coax along the plants the provide a tremendous amount of sustenance at this time. That is, to welcome them back too, in a way.
The following are the recipes for Wassail (alcoholic and non) that Roderick provides:
2 pints brown ale
1/2 pint dry sherry or dry white wine
3 ounces sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Preheat your oven to 350ºF. Wash, peel, core, and slice the apples. Place the apples, sugar, and 4 tablespoons of the ale into a glass baking dish and bake this together for 25-30 minutes or until the apples are tender. Peel the lemon rind, removing only the bright outer layer. Remove the apples and their collected juices from the oven and set aside. On top of the stove, set out a large pot, and add to it the remaining ale, wine, lemon peel, and spices. Mix this together and simmer gently over a low flame for 10-15 minutes. Add the apples and juices and serve immediately.
1 gallon apple cider
1/2 gallon orange juice
1 pint cranberry juice
4 cinnamon sticks
24 allspice berries
1 large orange
1 cup brown sugar
Press the cloves into the orange. Combine all ingredients in a pot and boil it over high heat for 5-7 minutes. Reduce the heat and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Believe it or not, I decided to try this…even though it is May and decidedly not the time for wintery drinks. I popped on down to Hillies and found a nice, local beer: Ninkasi’s Believer–a double red ale with lots of hops, but balanced by roasted malt. I like the caramel notes and thought it would be good with the apples. I also didn’t have any sherry or dry whites, but I had a merlot about and didn’t think the color would overly matter.
The verdict? It’s not my favorite drink, although that might just be the Ninkasi, which is ultra hoppy. It seems like all the Pacific Northwest beers are, though. It’s growing on me, but I don’t particularly care for the near syrup-y consistency and sweetness followed by such a bitter end. It’s all right, but not my bag.
In the future, I’ll probably stick with mulled cider or wine rather than bring an ale into the mixture.