The song dates back to the twelfth century by some accounts, the tradition to even before that. The concept of "wassailing" may have pre-Christian roots, which makes it vintage indeed.
In those pre-martini days, to wassail was to carol at the big house, the feudal manor, in hopes of getting refreshment in return for song. In addition to house-visiting, there were also orchard wassailers — carolers who sang to trees in hopes of a good harvest. To our contemporary palates, a few cups of wassail and everyone is in danger of harmonizing to the backyard dogwoods.
To make my own wassail, I found a very doable how-to in a 1985 Christmas Memories cookbook from Mystic, Connecticut. The recipe is for a traditional Old English Wassail, based on John Bickerdyke's 1860 instructions on how best to serve this spiced ale beverage.
Mr. Bickerdyke's original wassail called for a half pound of sugar dissolved in a pint of warm beer. Add four glasses of sherry and four pints of beer. Throw a little ginger and nutmeg in there, let stand for three hours til the carolers come from the feudal kingdom next door, and you have yourself a little wassail.
The Mystic cookbook updated the recipe for a more modern beverage, but be warned, it is still heavy on the cinnamon and the cloves, to paraphrase Clarence the angel from It's A Wonderful Life.
4 cups of ale
1 stick of cinnamon
2 tsp. powdered ginger
6 whole cloves
6 allspice berries
1 tbs. ground nutmeg
2 cups of sherry
juice and finely slivered rind of one lemon
1/2 cup of sugar
2 slices of toast
6-8 roasted crabapples or 2 or 3 roasted large apples.
Heat ale in enameled saucepan but do not boil.
Stir in spices, sherry, lemon juice, rind and sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves, cover and steep over low heat for 20-30 minutes. Do not boil.
Pour into heated punch bowl. Add toast and apples. Ladle into warm punch cups.
I used Saranac's Pale Ale because it presents itself as a classic English Ale. How appropriate. For the sherry, I may have erred with using the La Ina from the Domecq Vineyards. It is the most refined of the sherries and may not have been robust enough to withstand all that pale ale, let alone all the spices.
I have included a picture here of the wassail in the punch bowl, but there is just no way to put toast and a roasted apple in a brown liquid and make it look delicious. Toast - yes! You see, this is where the term "to toast" comes from. Cheers!
The single serving is the way to go, at least photo-wise. The wassail is a conversation piece and makes the house smell lovely, but you may find your guests heading to the fridge for the leftover Saranacs.
In search of a more new-fashioned variation on the beer cocktail, I went to Mac's, a neighborhood legend of a bar in Maspeth, Queens, New York City. Mac's traces its roots back to the Prohibition, making it truly a speakeasy. Coleman McCarthy, proprietor, is pictured here on the right with friend Jim, proving once again the joy a speakeasy still brings.
I ordered a Shandy — traditionally a 50/50 beer/ginger ale combination. You will also see the Shandy served up as a beer/lemonade mix. If you ask for this in Europe, you won't receive what we think of as lemonade — fresh lemon juice, sugar, water — but rather a 7-Up or a Sprite, a lemon-based soda. Anecdotally, the Shandy was born in Irish and British pubs where the quality of the beer was suspect. A cover-up with a mixer was called for.
The Maspeth Shandy was a Bass Ale and 7-Up. Bass Ale, a bitter ale, agrees with the sweetness of the soda — a great alliance. Upon hearing my request, the bar's patrons were very helpful: "A Shandy! Perfect for a hangover." And so it is, but I'll leave that for a New Year's column. Fashionista and Shandy Fan Kate Reeves Sonnick, my taste tester for the evening, says there'll be more beer soon!
In conclusion on the wassail, as Blur, famous Brit-pop band and not-so-famous wassailers say:
Wassail, wassail all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.