Is it Mulled Wine or Wassail? While pondering, enjoy a cup of my Warmed Mulled Apple Cider Sangria

If you have ever wondered what is the difference between mulled (or spiced) wine and wassail? Don't mean to burst your cinnamon bubble, but there is not much difference. I have read that mulled wine is enhanced by various whole fruits, where wassail uses lemon strictly. Since mulled wine and wassail are traditionally homemade family recipes, past down by generations, and the drinks are not likely to be found on store shelves, the two beverages can be nearly identical, which is a spiced wine, ale, or liquor, blended with aromatic spices and often served warm. Perhaps it is the origins, history, and traditions of mulled wine and wassail that are the difference.

Mulled or spiced wine dates back to antiquity. The Greeks first mixed spices into their wine not only as an enjoyable drink, but to extend their harvest and perhaps mask the flavors when the harvest had gone bad. Recipes and stories have been found citing the Roman gourmands Apicius and Pliny the elder were wiping up the warm elixir. The Roman’s called spiced wine “Conditum Paradoxum.” However, it was the Greek physician Hippocrates, that becomes the namesake for the wildly popular spiced wine in the medieval period, Potus Ypocras or also known as Hippocras. The after-dinner drink was often consumed warm and valued for its calming properties. Hippocrates had a medical theory called the four humours. This theory stated that the body was healthy when the four internal liquids (I will let you look that up for yourself) were in balance. The Europeans, until the 19th century, believed that this drink had the healing properties and restorative values to achieve that balance. If the four liquids in the body were not aligned, disease and disabilities were likely. Variations of the recipe contained wine, honey, and spices; ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, and white pepper to name a few. Ypocras was consumed in copious quantities during festivals, like St. John’s Eve or Midsummer’s Eve.

During the Victorian period in England, Charles Dickens enjoyment of mulled wine is evident by his references in his classics. In his work, A Christmas Carol, Dickens referred to a drink called a ‘smoking bishop.’ The smoking bishop is a British tavern drink, a variation of mulled wine, that is defined in a 1755 dictionary “as a mixture of wine, oranges, and sugar”.

"A merry Christmas, Bob!" said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. "A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!" (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave Five: "The End of It")

Mulled wine is steep in winter traditions around the world. Called by many different names, Gluhwein (Austria), Quentao (Brazil), Caribou (Canada), Vino Navega’o (Chile), Denmark and Norway (Glogg), Vin Brule (Italy), Bisschopswijn (Netherlands)… and so on. The concepts are the same, but the flavors are enhanced by locally grown or available products, for example the Alsace region in France uses Reisling.

The term Wassail hails from an Anglo-Saxon tradition at the beginning of the new year. The New Year’s celebration would be kicked off by The Lord of the Manor, who would greet the villagers would a toast of waes hael! The term originates from the Norse (“ves heil) for “be well” or “be in good health.” The assembled group would return the well wishes by enthusiastically shouting “drinc hael” (drink well), while hoisting a goblet or two of the spiced drink.

At the time, Wassail recipes often included ingredients like mulled ale, curdled cream (oh, yum), roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg, but since there is no official recipe, the flavors changed from family to family, town to town, and country to country. During the Anglo-Saxon period, there was no mention of wine or sugar in the wassail. In these ancient recipes, cinnamon was the dominant spice, followed by ginger and spikenard. Spikenard, also known as nard, nardin, or muskroot, is an aromatic oil from a flowering plant in the honeysuckle family that hails from Nepal, China, and India. Infact, the same Roman gourmands, Apicius and Pliny, I mentioned above with spiced wine also used spikenard in their recipes.

The Act of Wassailing is defined into two distinct versions. Either in a form of gatherings of people moving from house to house (caroling), while drinking wassail, singing, and spreading good cheer. The other is the blessing of the fruit trees as a way of encouraging a successful autumn crop. Wassailing often takes place during the festival of the Twelfth Night (January 5th), which celebrates the coming of the Christian holiday of Epiphany. It also concludes the twelve days of Christmas. In medieval times, Twelfth Night meant the end of an entire festival season that began with All Hallows’ Eve in October. It was the final day of indulging in holiday food and drink before the villagers had to return to work life. The truly devote celebrate “Old Twelvey” (January 17th), which is the original day of the Twelfth Night until the Gregorian calendar changed in in 1752.

One of the many traditions observed on the Twelfth Night was to eat a cake with a bean and a pea hidden inside. Those who found the bean and pea would be declared the King and Queen of the feast, and their “reign” would end at midnight. In France, the Twelfth Night cake was called tortell, an O-shaped pastry stuffed with marzipan and topped with glazed fruit. In Spain, this cake was called roscón de reyes. In apple abundant locations of England, such as Somerset and Sussex, Wassailing continues to take place on the Twelfth Night. The tradition is for villagers to enter the orchards singing loudly and dancing festively around the fruit trees to ward off evil spirits and to bless the trees for a successful crop.

A popular dish to eat on this day with wassail was plum or figgy pudding. This dish dates to the 1600s, thought it did have a brief hiatus in 1647 thanks to the legendary British Statesman Olivier Cromwell. Pudding was banned, along with Yule logs, caroling, decorations with holly, the smell of goose cooking, and nativity scenes as Oliver thought all the celebrations were far too pagan for his and his Puritan friends liking. Talk about no fun. In 1660, the ban was overturned. King George I served plum pudding at his first Christmas banquet, gaining him the nickname, the “pudding king.”

"If music be the food of love, play on.” — Shakespeare Twelfth Night (Act I, Scene 1, lines 1-3)

What ever name you want to call it, a cup of steaming spiced wine, flavored with warm spices and harvest fruits is the perfect way to settle into a winter's evening. The version I created was inspired by a trip to Sweden. I combined the classic flavors of Glogg with local cider to make a warm mulled apple cider sangria. Enjoy!

"If music be the food of love, play on.” — Shakespeare Twelfth Night (Act I, Scene 1, lines 1-3)

The version I created was inspired by a trip to Sweden. I combined the flavors of Glogg with local cider to make

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