A peculiar drink materializes across the United States every winter holiday season—at Christmas parties, in grocery stores, and at family gatherings for example. It is eggnog. As its name suggests, it contains eggs, along with milk, sugar, and heavy cream, plus spices such as nutmeg, vanilla or cinnamon. Alcoholic spirits, like whiskey, rum or bourbon, can also add some zing to eggnog.
The creamy drink is a weird mix, and it tends to divide opinion. Maybe the mere sight of it is enough to make you duck for cover…or alternatively you might be called an eggnog hog. How did this strange beverage find its way into our lives in the first place?
There are debates about how exactly eggnog came to be. However, most people who have probed its mysterious origins agree that it seems to have morphed from an English drink called “posset.”
Posset was used as a remedy in England as far back as the 15th century. One early reference to it is Russell’s “Boke of Nurture,” which dates from about 1460. Posset’s main ingredient was milk, which was heated, flavored with alcoholic drinks, and curdled before being sweetened with the same types of spices used for eggnog—namely, nutmeg and cinnamon.
It was considered a healthy and comforting drink, and was thought to help people recover from various colds and illnesses. Posset varied and evolved over time; it could include ingredients like egg yolks, and sometimes breadcrumbs. Wealthier people who had more dairy products on hand—and who could afford to make more frivolous use of them—whipped up possets as desserts. Sets for making possets were popular gifts among the well-to-do.
Posset might have been “the medieval eggnog,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. It made several cameo appearances in the writings of William Shakespeare, including being used as a Mickey Finn by Lady Macbeth on two unsuspecting guards.
George Washington And The Eggnog Riot
It is likely that eggnog sprung up as a colonial cousin of posset in British North America. It was generally easier for ordinary people in the American colonies to make their own versions of “posset” due to entrepreneurial spirit and sheer abundance of resources. Dairy farms were everywhere and there was no shortage of brewers of alcoholic beverages.
The term “eggnog” started popping up in North America in the late 1700s. As well as the name, the ingredients differ from what went into a traditional English posset, and are more or less the same as what we have now.
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Aside from being “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” George Washington is also rumored to be among the first Americans to publicize his own boozy eggnog recipe for Christmas parties. Yet contrary to popular belief, Washington is unlikely to have written his own eggnog recipe. The one commonly attributed to him contained rye whiskey, brandy, rum and sherry, but Mount Vernon claims the recipe has no tie to Washington.
Although it might not be linked to the first commander-in-chief, eggnog has an inglorious tie with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The academy became the scene of the infamous Eggnog Riot of 1826, in which cadets revolted against a disciplinarian superintendent who attempted to ban them from drinking alcohol. The cadets got their hands on some strong eggnog and ran wild, smashing windows and attacking officers. The aftermath of the Eggnog Riot saw 11 cadets expelled and five more withdraw from West Point.
As to its funny name? Historical debates rage as to where it might have come from. It has been claimed that “nog” either derives from a primordial English ale cup called a “noggins,” or from the slang term “grog” (also known to mean rum, or booze in general to those of us who are less picky). Even if its historical mysteries go unsolved, eggnog remains an indisputable part of the American winter holiday season.
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