Eggnog is a staple drink for many at Christmas with varieties of it enjoyed all around the world. But where was it invented?
Eggnog is believed to have come from Britain where 13th-century monks would drink a mixture of milk, eggs, and sherry. Distilled alcohol like brandy would be added to kill bacteria but due to the expense of acquiring this in the British colonies in the Americas, rum or whisky was used instead.
To find out more about the history and development of eggnog, read on.
People have been mixing alcohol with spices and sweeteners for thousands of years, with the ancient Greeks and Romans known to have mixed their wines with spices. This tradition has remained in much of Europe and in the colder climes of Britain, people took to adding spices to locally available drinks like ale and cider.
A drink called a “posset” was enjoyed in medieval Britain, with 13th-century monks reported as having mixed eggs and milk with alcohol, such as sherry. For the centuries to follow, the wealthy would use expensive ingredients like eggs, milk, and sherry to make their “possets” in Britain, while distilled alcohol like brandy would also later be added.
One key factor for adding harder alcohol was that it would kill any potentially harmful bacteria. The posset is still enjoyed as a traditional dessert in Britain, although it now refers to a cold set dessert made using lemon, sugar, and cream.
When people settled in the American colonies from Britain, they took this tradition with them and eggs and milk were readily available in the colonial farms. However, the traditional brandy and other European distilled alcohols were too expensive to buy for most people, so more local spirits were used.
In the southern states in the United States, bourbon would be used, while rum from the Caribbean would be used elsewhere. The eggnog recipe favored by George Washington called for a quart of cream, a quart of milk, a dozen tablespoons of sugar, a pint of brandy, half a pint of rye whisky, half a pint of Jamaican rum, a quarter of a pint of sherry, and about a dozen eggs.
Eggnog became so popular in the United States that it became associated with violent crime and its banning at West Point Military Academy in 1826 even led to the so-called Eggnog Riot.
Eggnog spread in popularity throughout the Americas, with many local variants depending on what was available. In Puerto Rico, for example, “coquito” is made using coconut milk and rum, while in Peru, “biblia con pisco” is made using pisco pomace brandy, and Mexico has a very similar drink called “rompope”.
Other similar egg-based drinks include the Dutch advocaat (based on a native Brazilian recipe using avocados), sabajón in Colombia, eierpunsch in Germany, and ajerkoniak in Poland (made using vodka).
As with the history of eggnog, the origin of the word “eggnog” is rather unclear, first being used in 1775. Obviously, the “egg” part of the word is clear, but the “nog” is not so clear.
Theories for “nog” include it being a reference to a “noggin”, namely an old English word for a wooden cup, or it could be a corruption of “and grog”. “Grog” referred to a strong heated alcoholic drink, with the Royal Navy’s old recipe calling for lemon juice, water, rum, and cinnamon.
The corruption of “egg and grog” to then become “eggnog” certainly seems to be a strong possibility for explaining the origin of the word, yet it is not known for certain.
Eggnog at Christmas
While we may somewhat understand how eggnog grew in popularity and how it got its name, its link to Christmas is another matter of confusion.
Eggnog has long been enjoyed at Christmas in the United States and the Eggnog Riot broke out due to banning the consumption of strong eggnog at the annual Christmas celebrations at West Point, with cadets smuggling in alcohol and having a huge party, ending in instances of vandalism, several expulsions, and an end to the tradition at West Point.
Eggnog’s association with Christmas may be due to the cost of spices meaning that it would be a luxurious drink associated with celebrations. This has been the case for many spiced foods and drinks throughout history and this may explain eggnog’s roots in Christmas celebrations.
Posset in Britain, for example, would traditionally be reserved for celebrations due to the expensive spices, alcohol, milk, and eggs.
In short, while the roots of eggnog may be traced back to Great Britain, it stopped being popular there and took off in popularity in the United States, where local variations were made.