Here We Go A Wassailing
Here We Go A Wassailing
The perfect warm holiday drink STORY & photos by jeffrey stites
Aside from the Nativity, my favorite Christmas story is Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The characters in that short story just really speak to me. Bob Cratchit is the picture of patience and perseverance. Each Ghost has its own unique personality, from melancholy to jolly to downright frightening. Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey from the worst of people to the best gives up hope for everyone’s redemption, even our own.
But it’s not only the movers and shakers of the story that appeal to me. My personal favorite is Mr. Fezziwig, Scrooge’s boss and mentor as a young man. Mr. Fezziwig functions in the story as the host of a glorious company Christmas party. That’s it. He has a few lines and is fondly remembered by modern-day Ebenezer, but in the end he’s simply the party guy. But he’s the archetype of the party host. He’s generous and jolly and silly and loud and insists that everyone stop all that work stuff and join the fun. Who wouldn’t want Mr. Fezziwig as a boss, or better yet, to be seen like he is by others?
As a Beer Guy, though, I had to wonder…..what sort of drinks would Mr. Fezziwig serve? Of course there’d be ales and hard ciders and wine and brandy. But those were everyday drinks in Victorian times and this was a party, a once a year extravaganza, so what else? Punch.
Victorians loved punch. And punch loved them, because many of the things we take for granted, water and milk and eggs, were dangerous in the late 19th century. Lack of sanitation, rivers spoiled by early industrialization and difficulty in keeping anything cold meant that one’s milk and dairy had to be made into a punch to be safe.
Luckily, two great preservatives, one of which doubled as an antiseptic, had become very affordable by this time--sugar and rum. Yes, Victorians’ mixed drinks featured milk and eggs. Milk does a body good, of course, but without refrigeration it needs a little help, and that help came in the form of mass quantities of hard liquor and sugar. I’ve seen a few old recipes and they are pretty horrifying. I mean they tried to liven things up with cloves and nutmeg and citrus fruits (when they could get them), but a gallon of curdled milk mixed with a quart of rum and couple cups of sugar is still curdled milk.
So what’s a Fezziwig fan to do? We want to be kind of authentic, but also I don’t want to die or become seriously ill in pursuit of maximum Fezziwiggery. The solution is Wassail. Wassail is totally authentic. It has its own Christmas carol. It most certainly would have made an appearance at Old Fezziwig’s table.
Wassail is a cider-based punch served to carolers who go door to door in search of more delicious punch. It’s unclear which came first. Was it called wassailing because they were looking for wassail or was the punch called wassail because it was served to wassailers? It’s a bit of a chicken or egg thing that I’ll leave to wiser minds than my own. I’m more concerned with making a wassail of my own.
Lucky for us, wassail is as free-form as sangria and shandy. It’s always apple-based, either cider or hard cider. If you’re not using hard cider, it’s enhanced with rum or brandy or both. Spices such as cloves, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and ginger can be introduced. If you’re feeling fancy you’ll float a few lemons or oranges on top. And because this is a Christmas drink served at night in chilly England, the punch is best served hot.
In the Christmas Spirit of Giving, here is my personal recipe for wassail. I generally make this the Saturday of the Christmas By The Sea Parade on Oak Island, taking some along to enjoy while we watch and leaving plenty to accompany our evening of tree trimming after the parade. It makes for a jolly time.
1 gallon apple cider
1-2 cups rum (spiced is good, but I like dark. You can use light if you’d rather. Or use brandy. Or leave the hooch out. It’s up to you)
A cheese cloth bundle containing whole cloves, nutmeg and a few slices of fresh ginger. How much of each is up to your taste.
3-6 cinnamon sticks. I use lots as I like cinnamon.
1 orange, sliced with the skin on
You’ll just put all of the above into a pot or Dutch oven or crock pot and warm it thoroughly. Don’t boil it, just get it nice and hot and keep it that way until you’re finished. I usually serve in a coffee mug because that’s what’s around, but anything from Styrofoam cups to fancy glasses would do just fine.