This time of year there’s nothing better than cozying up in front of the fireplace and enjoying a comforting mug of hot mulled apple cider. You can feel the warmth and cheer spread through your bones as the spices mix to make the perfect holiday drink.
The main ingredients of cider, apples, have been around for millions of years. They originated in Kazakhstan but eventually took root all over the world to become an important food source for humans for tens of thousands of years. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests that as early as 6500 BCE people were making a very basic form of cider. Since apples can be caused to ferment by wild yeasts, it is easy to assume that cider-making was discovered in many ancient cultures almost as far back as the cultivation of the apple itself.
Not surprisingly, the Romans perfected their own version of apple cider and Roman soldiers reported on various ciders being made around the world, including England where the Britons had long been enjoying the drink. Cider-making really took off in England after the Norman Conquest in 1066 when new varieties of apples were brought in from France. England wasn’t particularly well-suited for growing grapes, but it did provide an ideal climate for apple orchards. Cider-making became extremely popular and eventually was ubiquitous, with people from every class and station enjoying the beverage. By the 1800’s nearly every farm in England was producing their own cider. The drink was so popular that it was customary to even pay a portion of a farm laborer’s earnings in cider.
Of course, when colonists headed to the New World, they took their love of cider with them. In the early 19th century, John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed, began planting nurseries on the frontier, always growing from seed rather than grafting so that America began producing its own uniquely American apples. Cider became not only popular because it was delicious, but also because it was safe. Unlike water, which carried numerous bacteria, parasites and diseases including typhoid fever, dysentery, E. Coli and cholera, cider was mildly alcoholic and did not present a likely environment for these killers. It is said that some people drank a pint or more per day, including children.
But what does all of this have to do with the holidays? Well, in England enjoying hot mulled cider at Christmas time derived from the drinking of wassail for Yuletide (read more about Yuletide customs in our previous posts). Wassail was a hot mulled punch made with ale or wine and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. (It was also the name of an ancient drinking ritual in southern England that was intended to ensure a bountiful apple harvest for the next year, and as well were the words of a toast to one’s health, “Waes Hail.”) This tradition of mulled cider was brought over by the English to the United States where it continued to be associated with the holidays as the drink of choice for revelers of all ages.
This holiday season use the recipe below to fill your house with the scents of Christmas and please your taste buds with the flavors of cheer. The recipe lets you decide whether or not to indulge in the traditional alcoholic version or to go sans spirits so the whole family can enjoy. Here’s to carrying on an ancient tradition—Waes Hail!
Hot Spiced Apple Cider
- 4-5 cups of apple juice
- 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg
- 3 ounces of spiced rum (optional)
- Cinnamon sticks
- Apple slices to garnish
- In a small pot heat the apple juice, spices and rum (if using) over low/medium heat. Stir often while the mixture is heating so the spices will blend into the juice (you don’t want any spice clumps). Once it’s hot pour into two mugs and garnish with apple slices and cinnamon sticks.
 Synan, M. (2013, September 13). All About Apples. Retrieved December 5, 2014, from http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/all-about-apples
 History of Cider Part I: Early Development. (n.d.). Retrieved December 5, 2014.
 The History of Cider Making. (n.d.). Retrieved December 5, 2014, from http://www.utne.com/arts/history-of-cider-making-ze0z1306zpit.aspx?PageId=2#axzz3L2VAoxQF