clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A Brief History of Eggnog

The notorious holiday drink has a storied past

Flickr/Wheeler Cowperthwaite

Eggnog, the creamy, spiced, often spiked beverage that’s synonymous with Christmas is a staple at bars, restaurants, and holiday parties throughout December. Despite its ubiquity, many look upon it with skepticism. Others embrace its many iterations, from Starbucks drinks to ice cream, fudge, cheesecake, cookies, pies, cakes, custards, and even bubble gum.

The usually boozy beverage has been around for centuries. Here is a look into where eggnog came from, how it became associated with the Christmas season, what it is usually made of, and other tidbits that may or may not come in handy at a holiday party near you.

Where did eggnog come from?

Eggnog has roots in a medieval British beverage known as posset, which was a milk beverage made with wine or beer, cream, sugar, and egg, and thickened with anything from bread to oatmeal, according to Smithsonian.com.

Over time, posset spawned an eggnog-like beverage popular among monks in the 13th century, who drank the drink with eggs and figs. Milk and eggs, along with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg were considered luxury items, according to Fred Opie, a professor of history and foodways at Babson College in Massachusetts. Because of this, eggnog was considered an aristocratic drink and reserved for elites. The beverage gained approachability when it made its way to the American colonies, where farms supplied milk and eggs and where rum was plentiful. Rum then became a natural addition to prevent eggnog from spoiling in the days before refrigeration.

Where did the name come from?

The beverage was often served in a wooden cup, known as a “nog” or “noggin,” so when combined with one of the main ingredients, egg, the name came naturally. “Nog” may also be derived from an old English word for extra-strong beers.

Does eggnog actually contain eggs?

Traditionally, yes. However, today’s supermarket eggnogs, which are regulated by the FDA, contain very little egg, and certainly do not contain alcohol.

For those looking to get a taste of the original beverage, a homemade recipe will likely come closest to the original thing, which consisted of milk, egg, and plenty of alcohol. There are also plenty of spices added to eggnog, including nutmeg and cinnamon, as well as vanilla. Variations abound.

Is it alcoholic?

Sometimes. Early eggnog dating back to Medieval Europe included a distilled liquor, milk, egg, and spices, and the beverage jumped across the pond with the colonization of America.

“A lot of what people consumed in England and Colonial America contained alcohol,” Opie told Eater. Alcohol was safer to drink than straight milk, he said, and was often added to dairy to kill any harmful bacteria that often appeared in dairy products. Eggnog at that time was very thick and mostly contained rum, which was a common alcoholic beverage in the colonies.

When made in advance, and when made with eggs, alcohol cures the raw eggs, eliminating potentially harmful bacteria. In fact, some modern recipes recommend letting eggnog sit for a few days up to a few weeks for this exact reason.

What’s the tradition surrounding its seasonality?

In the early days of eggnog, when spices were a luxury, they were most likely to be used around special occasions like winter holidays, baked into dishes and desserts and added to drinks, according to Opie. The winter months also provided a refrigerator effect for eggnog: while the alcohol prevented the spread of bacteria, the cold air helped the milk and cream stay cool, and over time, eggnog became a regular element of the holiday season.

Are there different kinds of eggnog?

James Norton, the editor of Heavy Table in Minnesota and an eggnog aficionado, says when it comes to the eggnog the average person can purchase at the grocery store, there are two varieties: drinking and mixing. “We need, as a society, to come to grips with this,” he tells Eater.

Between those two varieties, he says, there is a two-part distinction between sweetness and thickness.

“When mixing, sweetness is a great asset,” Norton says. The mixing eggnogs can taste overly sweet when consumed straight, but when cut with a choice liquor (like rum or brandy), the beverage strikes a balance. The other part of the equation is the thickness. “The mixing eggnog is almost glue like,” Norton says. “When you’re cutting it with an alcoholic spirit, it makes total sense.”

Meanwhile, the drinking eggnogs are more liquid and less viscous, more akin to milk. Norton’s personal favorite is Organic Valley eggnog, and he’d rather drink it straight, accompanied with an Old Fashioned, saying he’s perfectly happy double fisting.

“Part of what i'm doing when I'm drinking eggnog is harkening back to my childhood,” Norton says, reaching for a familiar comfort and simplicity.

How do you make it?

Over the years, countless eggnog recipes cropped up in recipe books, online compendia, and blogs, but for a historical precedent, let’s take a look at the recipe of one Founding Father and the first President of the United States: George Washington.

Washington’s eggnog is not a simple one — by no means did he pour out a milky liquid from a carton and stir in some rum. The recipe involves plenty of booze, stiffly beaten egg whites, and days of curing before serving. Here’s a look at Washington’s eggnog, courtesy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac:

“One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, ½ pint rye whiskey, ½ pint Jamaica rum, ¼ pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 12 eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.”

A similar version is sold in the restaurant at Mount Vernon.

All Eater Explains [E]


Can't get enough of Eater? Sign up for our newsletter.

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day