For the month of December, I'm concentrating on beer or ale-based cocktails in honor of the wassail. The wassail, as in "Here We Come A-Wassailing…" is a familiar and favorite Christmas carol but an unfamiliar beverage!
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.