“Here we come a-wassailing!” We hear that little line sung so often this time of year, and rarely do we give much thought to its meaning. But people should. After all, my curiosity about it led me to discover a delicious yuletide drink many years ago.
As I dug into wassail’s meaning, I found the word comes from the Middle English phrase “waes hael”, which translates to “good health”. The custom of drinking wassail is believed to have originated as a toast and prayer to a bountiful apple harvest. Eventually the hot, mildly alcoholic beverage borrowed its name from the phrase and revelers have prepared wassail in large bowls for centuries. An ancient custom had groups of carolers roaming the streets, knocking on the doors of the well to do, and requesting a sip from the wassail bowl while enjoying the warmth of the hearth for a minute or two.
Wassail, the drink, is a very traditional style of hot mulled punch, made with eggs, spiked with booze (I use Madeira), and dotted with baked apples. I first learned how to make wassail, as I did with so many cocktails in the late 1990s, from Paul Harrington, who adapted this recipe from David Embury’s 1961 The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. After following the recipe I outline below, which yields enough to serve around 20, I keep my finished wassail in a large crock pot on low heat to prevent the mixture from becoming too hot, resulting in the eggs curdling.
As you can see, wassail is a bit of a process to prepare, but a well-made bowl is a special treat that your guests will be talking about until next Christmas rolls around.
4 bottles Madeira
12 apples, cored and baked
12 eggs, yolks and whites separated
8 oz. water
2 lbs. sugar
1 tbsp. nutmeg
2 tsp. ginger
½ tsp. mace
6 allspice berries
1 cinnamon stick
In a covered 12-quart stockpot, bring water to a boil. Add nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cloves, mace and cinnamon. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add sugar and Madeira and heat until the sugar dissolves completely.
Beat the egg yolks and whites separately; fold together. Put egg mixture in a large bowl, and slowly add the heated mixture to the eggs, ¼ cup at a time at first, stirring each addition to slowly temper the eggs. Once the brew has been thoroughly mixed, add the baked apples.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the bar manager at Pépé le Moko and Clyde Common, the acclaimed gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. He is also author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.