What is Winter Solstice?
The definition of Winter solstice is “when one of the Earth's poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun”. This happens twice yearly, once in the Northern hemisphere and once in the Southern Hemisphere. For that hemisphere, the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. And at the pole, there is continuous darkness or twilight around the winter solstice. For us, this day typically falls on the 21st of December.
The importance of the Winter Solstice is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on an important sight line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise in (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset in (Stonehenge). Seasonal events like Winter Solstice were often used to guide activities, such as the mating of animals, sowing of crops, and monitoring of winter reserves. It was important to monitor the progress of the seasons to a time when starvation was a threat.
The winter solstice holds ever-looming historical and cultural significance. It has been celebrated all over the world for thousands of years. And depending on where you were located and your religious affiliation, the observances of Winter Solstice varied. Now, If you Google or Pinterest search “Winter Solstice traditions,” the most common tend, to fall in line with Norse, Germanic, and Scandinavian-esk traditions. I say “esk” because we have the knowledge that Winter Solstice is the reoccurring event of the longest and darkest night and not a mythological wolf eating the Sun God. And with that, we have the wherewithal not to be frightened.
A mid-winter festival, In many cultures, was the last feast celebration. Again with the looming threat of starvation, you wanted to celebrate and thank the gods for having made it this far and wish for a quick end to winter. In preparation for winter solstice, Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. The majority of mead, wine, and beer made during the year from the excess herbs and grains, had finally been fermented and were ready to drink. This would mean that your mid-winter celebration consisted of copious amounts of food and drink. If we have taken away anything from any Norse representation, they LOVED to eat and drink.
Popular Winter Solstice Cocktails
When I think of villagers and Vikings, I think of ale being drunk from a flagon or mead from the horn of an animal, willfully forgoing water. This depreciation of Viking’s partaking isn’t inaccurate. In the early centuries, water was anything but clean. People bathed, pooped, and even died in the water. Old reliable Ale and mead were always there to satiate after a long day's work. By far, the most popular mid-winter celebratory drink was Mead. Represented in almost every early-century film or television show as “wine or beer, Mead is, in fact, neither wine nor beer.
Mead has long often been confused for beer or wine, but in fact, has its own category and profession. Mead was traditionally made from just honey, airborne yeast, and water. The American Mead Makers Association’s (AMMA) official definition classifies the sweet beverage as derived either from honey and water.” or from a mixture of honey and water with hops, fruit, spices, grain, or other agricultural products and flavors, but stipulates that honey must represent the largest percentage of the starting fermentable sugars by weight.
Like wine, mead is also left to age comparatively longer than beer – an average of 2 to 3 years. And unlike both beer and wine, beer, Meads's alcohol content ranges between 6 and 20 percent ABV, depending on the whereas wine and beer typically come in at a much lower ABV.
Mead pre-dates both beer and wine by not hundreds but thousands of years. Historian, journalist, and writer Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat even went so far as to say mead could be regarded as “the ancestor of all fermented drinks, antedating even the cultivation of the soil” – and there is some evidence to support this.
According to a recent article by BBC, in Northern China, pottery vessels containing chemical signatures of a mixture of honey, rice, and other fruits, along with organic compounds of fermentation, were dated around 6,500 and 7,000 BC.
It is first attested in residual samples found in ceramics from 2,800 to 1,800 BC in Europe. Because the ancient Greeks considered bees as messengers of the heavens, they reportedly referred to mead as “the nectar of the gods,” using it in sacred fermentation rituals. It is even credited for the term “honeymoon,” as it was historically served at weddings and gifted to newlyweds. The couple would drink it various a “moon” or a month after their ceremony to enhance fertility.
So honey is the primary ingredient in mead. But with that in mind take a moment to consider that there are as many possible types of honey as there are flowering plants fertilized by bees in the world. Then take into account that with each changing year and season. the honey harvested will yield different flavors depending on rain, nutrients in the soil, plant and bee health, and so many more factors. That's just one huge crazy piece of the recipe. Don’t forget to factor in the type of yeast and technique used in production, aging, and the addition of fruit or spice – all of which will impact the taste and mouthfeel of the final product. With so many variables, it’s easy to see how this drink can boast such an incredible variety, ranging from still, carbonated, or sparkling; to dry, semi-sweet, or sweet; and thick or light.
However you decide to enjoy mead, it's obvious that it's experiencing a steady and successful renaissance. (AMMA) indicated that, on average, a meadery opens in the US every three days. There are roughly over 450 meaderies in the US alone. If you are visiting or local to Utah, did you know that we have a meadery here?! The Hive Winery, located in Layton Utah offers a large variety of yearly and seasonal meads and fruit wines. With 120 - 5 star reviews, I think that they know what they are doing.
Eggnog is not often thought of as a Norse mid-winter festival drink, mainly because by the time winter came, the chickens had most likely stopped laying and were subsequently eaten. Records also show that the cocktail was not added to the festival menu until roughly the mid to late 1600s. However, before the “official” Eggnog, we get its close cousin, the Posset. It was introduced sometime in the 15th century and served in a vessel that looked like two teapots smashed together or, better yet, a toddler sippy cup with a teapot spout, known as a Posset Pot.
The Posset Pot served a dual purpose since the Posset was both a drink and a dessert, with a layer of thick, sweet gruel floating above the liquid. The spout allowed the liquid part to be drunk separately from the thick layer, which was eaten with a spoon. The pot would be passed around at celebrations and became a staple in British-Christian-based winter solstice celebrations. Recipes widely varied, but they usually contained wine or beer, cream, sugar, and eggs and were then thickened with bread, biscuits, oatmeal, or almond paste, which formed the top layer.
Here is a 17th-century recipe that doesn't help to make it sound any bit appealing:
Take a quart of thick cream, boyle it with whole spice, then take sixteen eggs, yolks and whites beaten very well, then heat about three quarters of a pint of sack , and mingle well with your eggs, then stir them into your cream, and sweeten it, then cover it up close for half an hour or more over a seething pot of water or over very slow embers, in a bason, and it will become like a cheese.
I can't imagine a beverage being "like a cheese" would ever be a good thing. We may have hit upon the reason why possets have all but disappeared from the winter beverage scene.
The Eggnog that has (thankfully) replaced the Posset, has very fuzzy origins. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, nog was "a kind of strong beer. Alternatively, nog also stems from the word “noggin” which was a Middle English term for a small, carved wooden mug used to serve alcohol. The best origin theory I found for the term “Eggnog” is that of Babson College professor Frederick Douglass Opie who wrote that the term is a combination of two colonial slang words rum was referred to as grog and bartenders served it in small wooden mugs called noggins. The drink first became known as egg-n-grog and later as eggnog. Oh, how the British loved their rum!
In Britain, the drink was originally popular among the aristocracy. Milk, eggs, and sherry were foods of the wealthy, so eggnog was often used in toasts to prosperity and good health. The drink would eventually cross the Atlantic to the British colonies during the 18th century. With the colonies already in an abundance of Rum, all they had to do was couple that with their plentiful farm and dairy products, and boom you have a new drink! When the supply of rum to the newly founded United States was reduced as a consequence of the American Revolutionary War, Americans turned to domestic whiskey (Most likely a blend of corn and rye grain), and eventually bourbon, as a substitute. In places in the American colonies where even bourbon was too expensive, homemade moonshine spirits were added to eggnog. While none of this explains how or why Eggnog has become the go-to holiday drink I would like to add that the cocktails was founding father, George Washington’s favorite drink. Which means he could have been the OG influencer of Eggnog.
Mulled Beer and Mulled Wine
I won't spend too long on mulled wine or beer. Mainly, because the nice thing about “mulling” a drink is that ANYTHING can be mulled. Wine, beer, cider, mead, tea. ANYTHING! The term “mulled” means to mix herbs and spices and bring them to heat. It literally is hot sangria. Which I find funny because December 20th is National Sangria Day. Mulled Wine is just hot Sangria. So it is of little surprise that anyone celebrating the Winter Solstice heated up their alcoholic drinks. After all it was very cold.
Here is one of our favorite recipes:
Recently at the Cocktail Collective, we held a class called Winter Solstice Cocktails. We made two craft cocktails that were a riff of these popular winter solstice cocktails.We'd be remise if we didn't share these delicious cocktails with you!
However you choose to celebrate the holiday season and the Winter Solstice, we wish you a good tidings and a warm harth.