Wassail is an old tradition, going back to pre-Norman England and possibly earlier. There seem to be at least two kinds of wassailing: one kind carried door to door in a large wooden bowl to toast neighbours, and one to visit apple orchards (particular to apple-growing regions) or fields and livestock to ask for a good growing and harvesting season in the coming year and to scare away evil spirits.
Like lots of old, regional traditions, it’s pretty confused and tangled-in with other traditions. Those traditions might have been unique from one village or family to the next, all in place for hundreds of years before anyone thought to write them down. I’m no scholar of early English history, but from what I can tell from the earliest recipes I’ve found, the Wassail that you took with you from door to door was essentially a spiced, mulled ale with toasted bread floating in it (The Gloucestershire Wassail, a carol from at least the 18th century, references a brown ale, and the earliest recipe I can find, from 1732, includes ale), while the one you took to the orchards to ask the apple trees for a good harvest was more like the apple-based Lambswool, a festive recipe that I posted a few weeks ago.
Door-to-door wassailing in the Christian period was done as a part of Twelfth Night celebrations (the twelfth day of Christmas, when the Wise Men were said to have reached the stable where the Holy Family were hanging out), which also included cross-dressing and other role-switching, and traditions related to the three wise men, including King Cake.
According to Wikipedia, “The word wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon greeting Wæs þu hæl, meaning “be thou hale”—i.e., “be in good health”. The correct response to the greeting is Drinc hæl meaning “drink and be healthy.”” If you’d like to read more about the traditions around Wassailing, particularly in the colonial USA, there’s an interesting article here.
I’ve done a bit of research, and the modern Wassail recipes I’ve found seem more like a mulled wine or cider, Gluwhein, or Mulled Wine – and of course every housewife would have had her own recipe with the ingredients available to her, so there’s no one right recipe. I’ve created a Wassail recipe based on the oldest recipes I can find, a smaller-batch version of the published recipes of the 18th and 19th centuries, so that you can give it a try even if you don’t want the version that starts with twelve pints of ale. Historical recipes (and my modern translations for measurements) below!
Note: traditionally, ale was made without hops. I’m going to recommend making this with a Scotch ale (I used Innis & Gunn) if you can, because I think the sweet maltiness of a Scotch ale might approximate what people in the Middle Ages were drinking. I welcome other thoughts!
Lastly, I’ve reduced the amount of sweetener by quite a bit; with the reduced amount, I still found my Wassail was on the edge of too sweet.
- 3 cups ale
- 1/4 or 1/2 cup maple syrup or honey
- 1/2 cup sherry
- Nutmeg to taste (fresh-grated)
- Fresh ginger slices to taste
- 3 Lemon slices
- Sliced, toasted bread
- Over a medium-low heat, dissolve maple syrup or honey in 1 cup ale.
- Add ginger and nutmeg to taste. Simmer 10 minutes.
- Add sherry, remaining beer, and lemon slices. Simmer 10 minutes.
- Pour into a bowl and garnish with slices of toast.
Historical Recipe Sources
I’ve included the historical recipe and it’s source, followed by a list of ingredients in modern measurements below.
As far as I understand, a ‘glass’ is about 1/4 cup or 4 tablespoons, which I’m basing on both Miss Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery in Its Various Branches, 1839, and The Rumford Complete Cook Book, 1918, which give measurement conversions.
Recipe for the Wassail Bowl
Put into a quart of warm beer one pound of raw sugar, on which grate a nutmeg and some ginger. Then add four glasses of sherry and two quarts more of beer, with three slices of lemon add more sugar if required, and serve it with three slices of toasted bread floating in it
- 6 cups ale, 2 cups warmed to start, 4 cups added later
- 2 cups sugar, more to taste
- 1 nutmeg
- Ginger to taste
- 1 cup sherry
3 slices lemon
- Three slices bread, toasted
The Wassail Bowl: Put into a bowl ½ lb. of Lisbon sugar, pour on it 1 pint of warm beer, grate a nutmeg and some ginger into it, add 4 glasses of sherry and 5 additional pints of beer, stir it well sweeten it to taste let it stand covered up two or three hours then put three or four slices of bread cut thin and toasted brown into it Sometimes a couple or three slices of lemon and a few lumps of loaf sugar rubbed in the peeling of a lemon are introduced
- 1 cup sugar, more to taste
- 12 cups beer, 2 to start, 10 added later
- 1 nutmeg
- Ginger to taste
- 1 cup sherry
- 3 slices of lemon
- 3 slices bread, toasted