Wassail is a deeply rooted tradition in the Midwest and a popular regional staple throughout the cold-weather season. Every winter as the holidays approach, many Wisconsinites still take part in the age-old "wassailing of the apple trees," a ritual dating back to the fifteenth century that involves sprinkling wassail on apple trees to ensure a strong, healthy harvest and to keep the trees safe from evil spirits.
Wassail always blends apples and winter holiday spices, but the sweeteners and spirits often vary from recipe to recipe. This version comes from the Rittenhouse Inn in Bayfield, an area that leads apple production in Wisconsin. The cranberry juice is a perfectly tart counterpart to the sweetness of the apple cider and brown sugar; the bourbon lends a full, rich quality; and the ginger, pepper, and spices offer a final kick of flavor.
To make the wassail, wrap the cloves, allspice, ginger, cinnamon sticks, and peppercorns in cheesecloth and tie with kitchen string. Combine the cider, cranberry juice, brown sugar, and spice bag in a large pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
For each serving, put one ounce of bourbon in a mug and fill with hot wassail. Garnish with a dusting of nutmeg and a cinnamon stick.