Everybody has an opinion about eggnog.
Sprinkled with nutmeg, with a bit of booze added (or a lot of booze added), this adult holiday beverage is both loved and loathed. Widely available today in pasteurized form, packaged in cartons or bottles and found in the refrigerated dairy section at the local supermarket, few of us are actually making this seasonal drink from scratch.
And for good reason: Since there are copious amounts of raw eggs involved, along with a traditionally lengthy aging process, perhaps it’s best to leave this one up to the pros.
So, what is a “nog” anyway, and why do we drink it at Christmastime? Pull up a chair, and let’s dive into the details…
A Storied Past
The historic record seems to indicate that eggnog was an aristocratic drink in Great Britain, enjoyed by the upper classes at various times of year. But it was not associated with any particular holiday until after it was brought to America.
One source says it was originally drunk by the British, with brandy and sherry added. Since rum was less expensive in the colonies, whereas brandy was taxed heavily, locals made the switch to spike their beverage with something more affordable.
During the American Revolution, sources of rum dried up. This is posed as evidence to explain why spiked eggnog became a beverage for occasional tippling served only at the holidays – because of scarcity during the Revolutionary War, based on reduced trade in the Caribbean.
Do I buy this? Not completely. Maybe the answer is far simpler – it’s a warming drink, and it’s not immediately obvious that such a cocktail is spiked. After all, what could be more innocent than a big glass of fortified milk?
Like gingerbread, lots of recipes that we associate with cooler weather include warm, wintry spices, so this particular concoction fits right in.
As it turns out, this particular interpretation was derived from a much more thorough and detailed explanation.
While it’s true that rum became scarce in the colonies, Fred Opie, professor of history and foodways at Babson College, states in his Food as a Lens blog that colonists switched to locally distilled spirits like moonshine or whiskey to pour into their eggnog instead. Opie claims the name is derived from “grog” (the colonial term for rum) and the wooden vessel that it was drunk out of, which was called a “noggin.”
The resulting drink was referred to as “egg-n-grog,” which eventually morphed into eggnog.
Enough about morphology – why do we drink it at Christmastime? Opie’s Food as a Lens blog does not make the reason for this seasonal connection clear, but sources are cited going back to the early 1900s with mentions of drinking eggnog only once a year, on Christmas morning.
Personally, the idea of drinking egg yolks combined with milk sounds pretty gross, so reserving this beverage for consumption once per year seems reasonable. I’ve never made it myself, since I’m a touch wary of salmonella (but seriously, even more against even the idea of the texture of raw eggs sliding down one’s gullet).
The thought of having to make the mixture myself just adds to the horror – something akin to going behind the scenes to find out how the hot dogs are made. You don’t want to know!
Instead, I usually drink the kind the comes in a carton, that’s made with pasteurized egg yolks. Or the dairy-free and egg-free kind that starting showing up on store shelves a few years ago, and that is really fantastic for those with food allergies and intolerances.
Or, okay, I admit it… I have tried the “real deal” as well, or at least something as close as I could get in the commercially available category, made with raw milk and real eggs and sold in glass bottles at the market up the street. I drank exactly one thick and creamy glass, loved it(!), and never drank it again. Sadly, half of the bottle went down the drain.
Okay, so let’s get back to this grog/nog thing:
Elizabeth Dias at TIME offers a slightly different story, a variation on a theme, if you will. Dias mostly backs up Opie’s description of the beverage’s history in America. But she does, however, make the claim that grog refers to a strong ale rather than rum, something that I refuse to allow myself to imagine mixed with milk, eggs, and spices.
Dias goes back a little further into the history of eggnog as well, claiming it was drunk in the form of a “posset” in Medieval Britain, a milky ale that monks eventually began adding eggs to in the thirteenth century.
Again, Dias backs up the story that fresh milk and eggs, as well as certain types of alcoholic beverages like sherry, were expensive foods reserved for the wealthy. But there’s no information to be found here as to why it’s specifically associated with the winter holidays today.
It does make sense that in the American colonies, where land was abundant, milk and eggs were no longer foods for the wealthy alone as they once were in Britain.
But why winter?
Enter the Riots
Perhaps eggnog has had such great sticking power as a traditional American holiday beverage as a result of the Eggnog Riots, an event that occurred in 1826 when whiskey was smuggled into West Point to make eggnog for a Christmas party.
You’ve all heard of West Point, but you may not know that its function and reputation have evolved over the years from sort of an anything goes, all-ages situation to the institution marked by straight-lacedness and upstanding young gentlemen that it is today (Editor’s Note: Having said that, I have no personal connection with West Point whatsoever – but I’d love to hear your stories giving evidence to the contrary! Bonus points if they’re food-related!).
So, the riots. They ensued, as riots do. Nineteen cadets were expelled as a result, so it must have been exciting. Young Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, students at the time, escaped punishment, but that actually has very little to do with the story, so let’s try to stay on track here!
Though alcohol on campus had been forbidden by the superintendent of the military academy, a couple of gallons were smuggled in nonetheless by a few different groups of students, reportedly leading to such raucous levels of drunken revelry that the North Barracks were completely trashed.
Supposedly, nearly a third of the students participated in the party. Natasha Geiling at Smithsonian.com tells us that windows were smashed, and banisters broken. There were fights, torn uniforms, even gunfire.
In fact, eggnog had traditionally been part of the holiday celebration at West Point, and students knew this, so they smuggled in the alcohol that they would need despite the ban.
Pour a Glass and Chill
At the very least, I suppose wanting to drink this particular mixture of ingredients during the wintertime as opposed to the summer months makes sense, in an age before refrigeration. No amount of alcohol and spices could cover up the taste of curdled milk and rotten eggs! But wouldn’t a rum and Coke have sufficed?
In fact, Opie says the liquor actually did help to keep the perishable ingredients from spoiling. The high calorie content and rich flavor of eggnog, plus a time-honored tradition of serving big batches in punch bowls, also account for its eventual evolution into a special-occasion-only holiday beverage.
So perhaps, in some circles, eggnog is merely the Skippy or the Jungle Juice of yesteryear. How quaint.
Refrigeration theory notwithstanding, this story certainly doesn’t explain why eggnog is traditionally served as a holiday drink… but I can’t wait to share it with conversation-starved relatives the next time a glass is offered to me at Christmastime!
Do you have an eggnog story to share? Have you made it from scratch at home? Let us know in the comments!
And if you’re still got a hankering for the stuff, skip straight to dessert and give our recipe for spiced boozy eggnog cheesecake a try.
Photo credit: Shutterstock.
About Allison Sidhu
Allison M. Sidhu is a foodie from Philly who is based in LA, where she loves exploring the restaurant scene with her husband. She holds a BA in English literature from Swarthmore College as well as an MA in gastronomy from Boston University. When she’s not in the kitchen making a fresh green juice or whipping up something tasty for dinner (or listening to the latest food podcasts while she’s doing the dishes!) you’ll probably find Allison tapping away at her laptop, curled up with a good book (or ready to dominate with controller in hand in front of the latest video game) on the couch, or devouring a food-filled magazine at the beach.