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The Long, Rich, Boozy History of Eggnog

This December, we’re exploring the drink’s storied history

Eggnog is connected to a medieval drink called posset. (Mizina/iStockPhoto)
smithsonian.com

People have been enjoying eggnog for a long time, under one name or another.

Know that rum- or brandy-soaked tipple your aunt hands you on Christmas morning? The British sometimes call it egg flip, but its most common name is related to old English, writes Icelandic food historian Nanna Rognvaldardottir for What’s Cooking America. “Nog” is an obscure dialect word that was used throughout English history to describe strong beer, and it might be where “eggnog” comes from. Another possibility is that the name refers to the wooden cup, or “nog,” that is called by the same name.  

The idea of a milky, alcoholic drink with eggs in it dates back to a medieval British drink called “posset,” writes Elizabeth Dias for Time. “By the 13th century,” she writes, “monks were known to drink a posset with eggs and figs. Milk, eggs and sherry were foods of the wealthy, so eggnog was often used in toasts to prosperity and good health.”

Those expensive ingredients made eggnog a drink of the wealthy in Britain, she writes, but in America it became more common— and became associated with rum. Coming from the Caribbean, she explains, rum wasn’t taxed as heavily as European spirits like brandy.

George Washington even got in the action. His recipe suggests that the founding father had a strong stomach. He forgot to specify how many eggs should be used in it, Dias writes, but cooks of that time thought a dozen or so would be good. Washington’s recipe includes the usual ingredients—sugar, milk, cream, eggs—but adds one pint of brandy, half a pint of rye, half a pint of rum and a quarter pint of sherry to the mix.

It might have been a recipe of similar alcoholic content that led to what’s known at West Point Academy as the Eggnog Riot of 1826. The riot happened when some cadets responded to a particularly strict school superintendent’s no-alcohol policy by taking the annual tradition of a little eggnog one step too far.

“At least seventy cadets took part in the shenanigans,” writes Army historian Carol S. Funck, “resulting in assaults on two officers and destruction of North Barracks, as some of the students, in their inebriated state, had smashed several windows.” Eventually the incident led to 11 cadets being court-martialed and kicked out of West Point.

Today, people throughout the world drink different kind of eggy, rich drinks, writes Rognvaldardottir. Eggnog-type options include syllabubs, eggnog’s less-boozy cousin; coquito in Puerto Rico; rompope in Mexico; biblia con pisco in Peru and Biersuppe in Germany.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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