Wassail: ISO A Snowflake Of Drink | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

Wassail: ISO A Snowflake Of Drink

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.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

As Publishing Industry Courts China, Authors Speak Out Against Censorship

Chinese writers and publishers are being celebrated this week at BookExpo America — the industry's largest trade event in North America. Free speech advocates are supporting silenced Chinese writers.
NPR

Cod Comeback: How The North Sea Fishery Bounced Back From The Brink

A decade ago, fishermen trying to catch North Sea cod were coming up empty. Now, thanks to strict fishing rules put in place to halt the decline, this fish tale looks headed for a happy ending.
NPR

Former House Speaker Hastert Indicted In Probe Into $3.5M In Withdrawals

The Illinois Republican is accused of taking the money out in chunks of less than $10,000 to evade reporting requirements, and of lying to the FBI about it.
NPR

FCC Chairman Wants To Help Low Income Americans Afford Broadband

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposes to reboot the Lifeline phone-access program. The plan recognizes that everyone needs to study, apply for jobs and make social connections online.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.