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, wassails are kind of like snowflakes — no two 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 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."
Few people seemed to be partaking, so I called my friend Ben Jacks, who grew up with wassail served every Christmas Eve. Ben's stepfather, who was from a Pennsylvania-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 home-brewed brown ale.
He puts a measure of the beer into a crockpot and then adds "Christmassy" spices — clove and allspice and cinnamon. "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's 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.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
We've been asking listeners to tell us about their favorite holiday foods. Wassail - or maybe you've heard it was wassail - is a traditional English drink, celebrated in this old Yuletide carol.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WERTHEIMER: Intrigued independent producer Kathleen Osborn embarked on a quest around New England for wassail.
KATHLEEN OSBORN, BYLINE: My first stop in search of wassail was the wassail festival in Woodstock, Vermont. But I found more horses than raised glasses.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE HOOVES AND BELLS)
OSBORN: 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.
BETH FINLAYSON: 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.
OSBORN: Few places in Woodstock were serving it, so Beth sent me to the source - the Prince and the Pauper Restaurant. Vincent Talento is the owner, and he gave me a taste of their recipe.
VINCENT TALENTO: To your health. Wassail. Isn't that good?
OSBORN: It is.
TALENTO: It's a citrus-y cider.
OSBORN: They make a special batch of the malt cider just for the festival, but more people were ordering martinis. So I called up my friend Ben Jacks, who grew up with wassail as a Christmas Eve tradition. He gave me his family recipe, which didn't contain a drop of cider.
BEN JACKS: It's like a very, very strong punch, you know, so it's like champagne and vodka, a lot of really kind of intense berry flavors in it. And basically the idea is you have to drink everything in the punch - that's, you know, 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.
OSBORN: Around Boston, where Ben grew up, their wassail ritual was a bit of an oddity.
JACKS: Yeah, I literally know not one other person in my life that does that.
OSBORN: So I have found the Holy Grail of wassailing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
OSBORN: Seemed like wassail could be just about anything, but a lot of recipes mention the hot spiced beer. So I met up with Randy Baril, manager of the Modern Homebrew Emporium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who makes his wassail with a homebrew brown ale.
RANDY BARIL: What I did is I put a measure of the beer into a crockpot, and to it I added a variety of spices that I had around the house - clove and allspice and cinnamon. And then as we taste it, if I decide it's not sweet enough, there's a little brown sugar I can throw into the mix.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLANKING)
BARIL: Cheers. Wassail. I'd say very fortifying.
OSBORN: I'd say a bit medicinal for my taste. Randy says I'll have to find my own recipe.
BARIL: You need to make it your own, you need to make it personal. And I think that's where a lot of the fun comes in.
OSBORN: Looking for a libation, what I really found was that holiday spirit. For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Osborn in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.