This drink has evolved over time. Early on wassail was likely a hot cider or punch containing hard cider and other alcoholic beverages. The recipe became much more elaborate over the years as each generation began to add new ingredients. The type of alcoholic beverage has varied widely. Traditional recipes call for ale or wine.
Church ale was a particularly popular choice. This was really no different than ale that was sold the rest of the year. However, it was special because it was sold by the church during the Christmas season to raise alms for the poor.
Hard cider has remained a favorite choice. Nowadays, people will typically use sherry wine and other liquors. They also use orange juice, which certainly wasn’t in the original recipe.
In some cases milk and cream were also added either with or without beaten eggs. These three ingredients typically gave the drink a white color. For that reason, this version came to be known as lamb’s wool or lamb’s woll. Roasted chopped apples or crab apples were also an ingredient in lamb’s wool. This contained one other unusual item that is rarely used today—one or more pieces of toast. Although this sounds odd, people in Colonial times loved to receive a cup of wassail with cubes of toast floating on the top. Some people substituted toast for the apples. Perhaps they had just run out of apples by Christmas or New Year’s during the olden days.
Sugar was an important ingredient as well since this is a sweet alcoholic punch. Numerous kinds of spices were used. The amount and selection depends upon the recipe. These commonly included nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. Allspice, mace, and coriander are less common.
Modern recipes call for whole or sliced oranges and lemons as well as cranberries, and possibly lemon juice and rind.
The cider, ale, wine, or other alcoholic drink is heated. Then, the spices and sugar were added. This was steeped (but never boiled) for at least 30 minutes. Nowadays we use a crock pot. For best results, use whole cloves, whole cinnamon sticks, and pieces of ginger rather than ground spices. Once the steeping is done, strain to remove the spices. Add the apples and/or toast last.
Some traditional lamb’s wool recipes called for blanched almonds. Some obscure ingredients that were used in earlier times include wafers and comfits. English poet Robert Herrick wrote a poem about this drink and gave instructions for making wassail. The poem is called A Swinging Wassail’ He wrote, “A health to the king and queen here, here nexte crown the Bowle full with gentle lamb’s woll; and this ye must do to make the wassail swinge.”