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Why Do We Drink That? The History of Wassail

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Photography courtesy of Sarah Buckholtz

The word "wassail" has a long, tradition-rich history. 

Dating back to the seventh century, wassail has meant everything from "to dance in celebration," to "a warm, spicy beverage drunk as a hope for good health." 

And historically, during the Anglo-Saxon period between 410-1066 AD, pagans seemed to do both: wassailing through the orchards singing and pouring wine on the crops as a ritual for an abundant harvest!

Today, we know wassail as a popular holiday cocktail. Something warm and spiced we drink as a celebration of the season. 

But why do we drink that? 

Grab a glass and lean in as we tell you the story behind the revelrous cocktail that has inspired some pretty epic Game of Thrones-esque parties throughout the ages.

What Is Wassail?

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Photography courtesy of Sarah Buckholtz

A hot beverage made with wine, beer, or cider, spices, citrus, and apples, wassail is typically served during the holiday season in a big bowl.

Deriving from the Old Norse greeting "Ves Heill," similar to the Old English expression "be in good health" (Merriam-Webster), wassail is known as a sort of tonic. 

Hardly surprising given that wassail's ingredients are rich in potassium, magnesium, and vitamin C.

(We've included a recipe for homemade wassail at the end so you can see for yourself!)

Plus, a tipple of alcohol never hurts the soul either, right?

But it's not just wassail's ingredients that surprise and delight.

Wassail Throughout the Ages

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Photography courtesy of Sarah Buckholtz

Throughout over fourteen centuries, Wassail has given rise to several remarkably original traditions, customs, and recipes. 

Seventh Century: The oldest recorded mention of wassail appears in one of the oldest known poems in the English language—an Old English poem called Beowulf

"The rider sleepeth, the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds, in the courts no wassail, as once was heard," reads the line in Beowulf.

Thirteenth Century: The term "wassail bowl," a steaming bowl of ale and fortified wine, first appears. 

Similarly, during this time the name "toast," which we associate with raising our glasses in celebration, originates from the practice of medieval partygoers dipping bread and cakes into a huge bowl of ale. Which could or could not have been wassail! 

Seventeenth Century: At this time, people start taking the warm wassail bowl from door to door as a festive offering of happiness and peace.

The term "wassailing" evolves over time to suggest alcoholic celebration in a more general sense.

Nineteenth Century: The puritans bring the tradition of wassail bowls to America, sparking the creation of other large bowl beverages, like eggnog and the hot toddy.

Late Twentieth to Early Twenty-First Century: Present-day revelers continue to drink wassail around the holidays, singing its praises (literally) in a classic holiday song simply called "The Wassail Song.

With lyrics that wish good health, love, joy, and happiness in the new year, the now-traditional English Christmas carol has become a favorite to sing during the holiday season. 

For instance, like the March sisters in the 1994 adaptation of "Little Women."

This holiday, might be the time for you to start your own wassailing tradition. 

How to Make Wassail

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Photography courtesy of Sarah Buckholtz

For a drink so rich in history, wassail is surprisingly easy to make. 

You just need a few key seasonal fruits, spices, and of course spirits. 

Although if you want to get fancy, this warm beverage has a lot of garnish options, like brandy-soaked apple slices or frothy egg-white topping with nutmeg. Feel free to be as festive as you please and make your wassail your own.

The best part is that the wassail will still be as enjoyable without alcohol—just omit the brandy.

Here's a homemade recipe for the holiday beverage.

Ingredients:

Serves 8-10 cups

  • 2 quarts apple cider
  • 2 cups orange juice
  • ½ cup brandy
  • 1 cup pineapple juice
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 5 cinnamon sticks
  • 5 star anise
  • 1/2 cup cranberries
  • 1 orange, sliced
  • 1 apple, sliced
  • Nutmeg

Instructions:

  1. 1) Add the apple cider, orange juice, and pineapple juice to a big pot over low heat.
  2. 2) Once the liquid begins to steam, add the apple slices, cranberries, orange slices, cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, and nutmeg.
  3. 3) Simmer for at least an hour to infuse the liquid.
  4. 4) Ladle only the warm liquid into a mug, garnish with a cinnamon stick, and a fresh apple slice. 

To get the full effect, don't forget to toast and say, "Cheers to your health!"

Our 5 Favorite Wassail-Inspired Beers

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Images courtesy of WeldWerks Brewing Co. and Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. 

Or if you don't feel like making your own wassail, guess what? 

Some breweries have been kind enough to create their own versions of this iconic drink in beer form. 

Check out a few of our favorites:

Biere De Wassail - Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. 

Biere De Wassail label

Biere De Wassail

Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.

Farmhouse Ale - Bière de Garde

Total (?) 2,709

Unique (?) 2,186

8.8% ABV

N/A IBU

(3.87)

1,954 Ratings

Barrel-Aged Wassail - WeldWerks Brewing Co. 

Barrel-Aged Wassail label

Barrel-Aged Wassail

WeldWerks Brewing Co.

Winter Warmer

Total (?) 219

Unique (?) 211

9.1% ABV

N/A IBU

(3.84)

181 Ratings

Wassail the Ocean - Southern Grist Brewing Company

Wassail the Ocean label

Wassail the Ocean

Southern Grist Brewing Company

Sour - Fruited

Total (?) 177

Unique (?) 168

5.8% ABV

N/A IBU

(4.24)

154 Ratings

Wassail - Full Sail Brewing Company

Wassail label

Wassail

Full Sail Brewing Company

Winter Ale

Total (?) 23,442

Unique (?) 17,729

7.2% ABV

56 IBU

(3.46)

15,542 Ratings

Wassail - Commonwealth Brewing Company

Wassail label

Wassail

Commonwealth Brewing Company

Sour - Fruited Gose

Total (?) 142

Unique (?) 138

6% ABV

N/A IBU

(3.75)

125 Ratings

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