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

'Listen To Me Marlon' Explores Brando's Life In His Own Words

The documentary, Listen to Me Marlon, tells the story of legendary actor Marlon Brando through hours of personal audio recordings. NPR's Melissa Block talks to director Stevan Riley about the film.
NPR

Humans Aren't The Only Ones To Go Ape Over Diets: Chimps Detox, Too

A group of Uganda chimps have found a great way to boost their mineral intake and neutralize bitter compounds in their diet: by eating clay.
NPR

U.N. Envoy: Solution To Syrian Conflict Must Be A 'Political One'

NPR's Melissa Block speaks with United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura about creating a peace process in Syria. He says there is a new "sense of urgency" by many parties to end the conflict.
NPR

Debris Found In The Indian Ocean May Be From Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet

Investigators believe a piece of debris found on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean could be from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared in March 2014.

Leave a Comment

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