Welcome back, ye merry gentlemen. It’s time for another dispatch from our month-long Punch Party. Last week, we sung the praises of a sherbet-filled punch variation that, when prepared, takes on a gloriously Grinchy hue. “Ah, sherbet punch!” you may say, raising your frosty glass. “What’s more classic than that?” Well, I’ll tell you what’s more classic than that: wassail, an age-old punch variation that dates back to the fifth century. Ready to come a-wassailing?
Today, the term “wassail” is often used interchangeably with seasonal drinks like mulled wine, cider, aleberry, Glühwein, and other holiday beverages. But there’s a reason that wassail scored its own Christmas carol: it includes beer, baby.
To trace the origins of this hoppy holiday treat, we’ll first hear from the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, a cocktail education nonprofit organization. In a blog post, the foundation’s Beth McKibben writes:
“Let’s rewind to a castle in 5th-century Britain, where Rowena—the beautiful daughter of a Saxon leader—seduces an incredibly inebriated King Vortigern with a goblet of spiced wine, giving the first recorded toast in history to his good health by crying out, ‘Waes hael!’ Taken by her beauty, he immediately beds then weds the girl after ordering her to drink of the same cup and exclaiming, ‘Drinc hael!’—‘drink, and good health!’ This moment in British history becomes the foundation on which one thousand years of wassail tradition spring forth and is said to be the first documented ‘toast’ in history.”
McKibben goes on to explain that the act of “wassailing”—a term that, in this case, refers more to the act of toasting and less to the contents of the toast—dates back to pre-Christian times when farmers would gather to pour cider onto their trees while simultaneously shouting to scare off evil spirits. Casual holiday fun!
Fast forward to the 14th century, when crowds of boozed-up carolers would visit neighbors with a large “wassailing bowl” filled with mulled wine, ale, and spices. (Here, take a moment to imagine a wassailing horde approaching you, sloshing all the way. What could be jollier?) Here, we can conclude that “wassail” isn’t just a noun—it’s also a verb. To wassail is to drink and be merry, yes, but wassailing is also an intentional act of jubilation during the darkest time of the year. All celebrations involve some degree of wassailing, even if there’s no actual wassail present. Got it?
So, wassailing is a verb, and it’s also a delicious noun. But what, exactly, is in wassail? Most of the recipes for today’s wassail involve apple cider—some with some Jim Beam thrown in—but if you want to hearken back to the early days of wassailing, you’ll need to use ale. For example, this New York Times Cooking recipe combines fortified Madeira wine, London Pride Ale, and Strongbow English Cider. This recipe also calls for ale and cider, with the addition of lemonade; meanwhile, Alton Brown omits the cider and goes a bit heavier on the beer.
Like all holiday punch recipes, wassail recipes are flexible. Either way, wassail is sure to please, with its festive scarlet hue and warming spices. And if you decide to skip the warm beer, that’s okay. A true wassail is less about the recipe and more about crying out with holiday cheer.