The holidays aren’t over yet so we may still have a lot of toasting to do especially on New Year’s Day. We are all familiar with champagne and other sparkling wines but I’ve rounded up some traditional holiday drinks that you may or may not have sampled during your round of Christmas parties.
Wassail – is a punch made of hot mulled cider and traditionally served during wassailing, a drinking ritual popular in Medieval England that is supposed to ensure a good cider apple harvest for the next year. Wassailers would utter incantations and make a lot of racket with pots and guns to chase away evil spirits. Then they would consume wassail to drink to the health of the trees. Wassailing became an English winter tradition for centuries, with peasants singing in front of houses of their feudal lords, wishing them good tidings. They are rewarded with food and drink. This tradition is now known as caroling. We still hear wassailing in the popular Christmas/New Year song “Here We Come A-Wassailing.”
The word wassail comes from Old English was hál which means “be healthful” or “be healthy.” The earliest version of wassail punch was made with warmed mead. Roasted crab apples were dropped in to create a drink called lambswool. Later it was made with mulled cider, sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Today, wassail is made with a base of wine, fruit juice or mulled ale, sometimes with the addition of brandy or sherry, and fruit like apples or oranges. Wassail is usually served in a large communal bowl (aka punch bowl) and topped with slices of orange. The punch is ladled into mugs with a dusting of nutmeg and a cinnamon stick.
Eggnog – or Milk Punch is a traditional concoction that dates to 17th century Britain. During those times, eggnog was enjoyed only by rich landowners, who had a supply of milk and eggs at their disposal. They used sherry as the alcohol component. In Colonial America, however, access to ingredients was easier due to the many farms so eggnog became a popular holiday drink. Traditional eggnog is made with milk or cream, sugar, whipped eggs, vanilla or nutmeg and alcohol like brandy, bourbon, or rum (I prefer rum). During the revolutionary war, rum became scarce so Americans switched to whiskey and bourbon.
Eggnog may have been developed from posset, a medieval beverage made with hot milk, wine, and spices and drank as a cold or flu remedy. Per Time magazine, 13th century monks drank posset with eggs and figs. Eggnog is also drank in other countries and is known as coquito in Puerto Rico. It has rum and fresh coconut milk. Mexico’s version is called rompope and uses Mexican cinnamon and rum or other grain alcohol. In Germany, eggnog is called biersuppe and you guessed it, it’s made with beer. The Dutch advocaat with its whopping alcohol content (20%) is considered an eggnog, too.
So, what’s up with the funny name? The name is thought to have been derived from nog which was an East Anglian beer. Or it could have been from the Middle English word noggin, a small wooden mug for serving alcohol. Anyway, “eggnog” first appeared in print in 1775 in a poem by Jonathan Boucher. Nowadays, commercial eggnog can be bought at any grocery store during the holidays.
As one would expect, the commercial versions are adulterated with things like gelatin to thicken the product because of less egg and cream. Ready-made eggnog could have alcohol or non-alcoholic. There are also non-dairy versions that use soy milk or coconut cream. Homemade eggnog historically uses raw eggs but because of salmonella poisoning, it’s best to use pasteurized eggs or heat the egg-milk mix on low, without boiling (which would scramble the eggs and curdle the milk), until the mixture is thick enough to coat a spoon, like you were making a custard.
Glögg or Gløgg – The term is new to me but not the drink. It’s basically mulled wine, which is very common at holiday celebrations. Glögg is Nordic in origin and uses dry red wine, sweetened with brown sugar and has spices like cardamom, cloves, ginger, bitter orange, cinnamon and has fruit like orange and raisins. Other spirits like vodka, akvavit or brandy is also used instead of wine.
Mulled wine in general has old origins, as far back as 2nd century Rome. The Romans brought the practice of mulling wine as they travelled across Europe. The earliest recipe is from a 1390 medieval English cookbook which contained a gamut of spices (cinnamon, ginger, galangal, cloves, long pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, rosemary) and mixed with sugar. Mulled wine became very popular in the United Kingdom, hence the Americas as well. If you visit Colonial Williamsburg during the holidays, you can enjoy this treat as well as mulled apple cider (for the kiddos).
Germany and other German-speaking countries have its version of mulled wine called glüwein (glow-wine). Hot irons were once used to mull the wine. Glüwein is uses with red or white wine, cinnamon sticks, cloves, star aniseed, citrus, sugar and sometimes vanilla pods. Traditional gløgg spices can be bought is Scandinavian groceries, Amazon or other online merchants. France’s vin chaud (hot wine) is made with red wine mixed with honey, cinnamon and orange and must not be too sweet. It’s popular in the Alps for those engaging in winter sports. Most European countries have their variations of mulled wine.
There is no specific recipe for mulled wine. Spices and sugar content is usually based on personal taste. It is customary to include a variety of citrus like orange or lemon. The spices are boiled in sugar syrup before red wine is added and heated. Mulled wine is served in porcelain or glass mugs garnished with an orange slice studded with cloves. One can also purchase a bag of spices for mulled wine from Amazon or Whole Foods. Mulling wine at home is a guaranteed way to make your house smell like the holidays.
Hot Toddy or Hot Buttered Rum – is a cocktail that has a long history. It originated from Europe where hot, spiced alcohol beverages were used to warm up during the cold winter. The British initially used brandy for hot toddies but when their Royal Navy captured Jamaica in 1655, rum took the place of brandy. During the colonial era, hot toddies were made with rum, hot water or cider, sugar or honey and spices. Rum was very popular during this time and there was an abundant supply from the Caribbean and Latin America. Rum is distilled from sugarcane or molasses and aged in oak barrels. The drink was enriched with the addition of a pat of butter.
If you are turned off by the thought of a greasy sip of alcohol, author Wayne Curtis (And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails) says that hot buttered rum is nothing short of “comfort food in a mug.” He says the trick is to make a batter of softened butter, sugar, spices and his secret ingredient – softened vanilla ice cream. The batter is added to a mug or glass, along with rum. Slowly stir in boiling water. Per Curtis, the ice cream prevents the “odious slick” of grease from forming on the surface. He also suggests making a large quantity of this batter to store in the freezer to keep it handy for those instances that you want hot buttered rum.
I enjoyed learning about these holiday drinks and it’s my pleasure to share these with my readers. It’s nice to know the stories behind our traditions and they make the holidays more meaningful. May you all have a blessed year ahead!