The holiday tradition of spiced cider or mulled wine stretches from Halloween to Twelfth Night through all of the holidays in between. Wassail is most usually associated with Christmas now, but it wasn’t always so.
Wassail is both the drink and the act of going house to house asking for the drink. “Waes Hail!” is a toast. It means “Good Health!” When roving bands of young men showed up at the doors of the wealthy in a town, holding out their wassail bowls asking for free food and drink, wassailing more closely resembled trick or treating. For those who go Christmas caroling, the offer of a hot drink is from the same tradition. For my family, we keep a pot of mulled cider on the stove through the harvest and winter holidays.
If you are establishing your own family traditions, keep in mind that scents can be very evocative. Apple and cinnamon wafting through the house is one of those signals for my children that it is holiday time. Perhaps you might want to add wassail to your celebrations.
Start with a large stock pan.
Base drink. You can make a kid-friendly version with apple cider or even apple juice with added orange juice. We add a gallon of apple and half a gallon of orange to start.
Alcohol. If you aren’t feeding kids or you are making an adult version, you can start with red wine or hard cider. You can also add brandy, port, or sherry. Anything sweet will mix well.
Spices. Add cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, or any of the sweet spices you like. You can make it all powdered or add whole spices for a beautiful look.
Sugar. I don’t add sugar, but most recipes call for it. Apple juice adds a lot of sweetness that gets thicker as the night goes on, so skip it.
Fruit. We add orange wedges with cloves stuck into the rind, and I’ve also seen apple slices added.
Warm without boiling. You want to let the spices steep for at least 30 minutes, but an hour or two will give you a thicker, spicier version. If you are serving at a party, continue to top it up with more apple and orange through the evening. Topping up is likely why the alcoholic version becomes more potent as the evening wears on.