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Part of an ongoing series on unique holiday dishes:
From caroling to consumption, wassail is an old English tradition for the holiday season. A favorite of Charles Dickens and the subject of many carols, wassail is actually synonymous with drinking "to your health." But figuring out exactly what you are drinking is another matter.
Intrigued, I set out to learn more about the libation. It turns out it is kind of like snowflakes — no two wassails are alike. The ingredients, the tradition and even the pronunciation vary. (Some say WAH-sehl, others say WAH-sail — as in sailboat.)
My first stop on my search for wassail was the Wassail Festival in Woodstock, Vt. But I found more horses than raised glasses. In Woodstock, wassail is more a Christmas celebration with a horse parade and a bit of caroling rather than a drink.
Beth Finlayson of the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce says it's an old yuletide tradition.
"Wassail actually came from the Norse folks. And people would have a special drink during the winter solstice and say 'Wassail to you,' which is good health," Finlayson says.
Few places in Woodstock were serving the beverage, but Finlayson found a cozy spot that had a batch on the boil. The Prince and The Pauper restaurant makes their wassail with mulled cider and the spirit of your choice. Vincent Talento, the owner, gave me a taste of their recipe with a nip of brandy.
Talento says they make wassail and advertise it but once a year for the festival weekend. Most people are intrigued, he says, but "others just want a martini."
Since few people seemed to be partaking, I called up my friend Ben Jacks, who grew up with wassail served every Christmas Eve. Ben's stepfather, who was from a Pennsylvanian Dutch family, started the family tradition. For Ben, wassail is not about cider.
"It was a very, very strong punch. It was champagne and vodka and then a lot of really intense berry flavors in it," he told me. "And basically the idea is that you have to drink everything in the punch with your whole family. So you put it right down and while everyone else is singing you need to be actually drinking out of the wassail bowl."
Around Boston where Ben grew up, their wassail ritual was a bit of an oddity. He seemed to be the "holy grail" of the wassailing tradition.
Historically, wassail could be just about anything — from an ale to cider or mead or a boozy punch — but it is most closely associated with a hot spiced beer. Hoping to have something a bit closer to that recipe, I met up with Randy Baril, manager of the Modern Homebrew Emporium in Cambridge, Mass. Baril makes his wassail with a homebrewed brown ale.
He puts a measure of the beer into a crockpot and then adds "Christmassy" spices — clove and allspice and cinnamon. "And then as we taste it and I decide that it is not sweet enough, there is a little brown sugar I can throw into the mix," he says.
"Cheers. Wassail," Baril says before taking a sip.
It's a bit medicinal for my taste, but Baril says it is all about finding your own recipe.
"You need to make it your own, you need to make it personal. And I think that is where a lot of the fun comes in," he says.