Eggnog: The Quintessential Holiday Cocktail

Christmas in the South. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Archives.

Homer, Didn’t You Get Any Milk? All I See Is Eggnog’

Yes indeedy, it’s that glorious time of year. Fill the fridge, ring the bells, it’s EGGNOG season. That mysterious, thick, sweet egg based delight that appears in early November and then seemingly vanishes off the face of the earth come the new year. Love it or hate it. There is no denying that eggnog is an essential part of the holiday season. How on earth did a drink like this come to symbolize Christmas?

It’s all about the POSSET:

It is believed that eggnog is actually derived from a thick, custard-like brew made by heating wine or ale with milk until it curdles. Popular in the late middle ages, Posset was touted as a curative drink. For the nobility the warm milk concoction was consumed to help with sleep, ease colds and relax. It became the fashion in Medieval affluent circles in Europe to give Posset sets as gifts. The Spanish ambassador presented a Posset set to Queen Mary I and King Phillip II of Spain to celebrate their betrothal in 1554.

Fortunately, Posset is still being made today, and I have found many great recipes. The following is a 17th Century recipe published by the Guardian.

My Lord of Carlisle’s Sack-Posset

Take a pottle (1/2 gallon) of Cream, and boil in it a little whole Cinnamon, and three or four flakes of Mace. To this proportion of Cream put in eighteen yolks of eggs, and eight of the whites; a pint of Sack; beat your eggs very well, and then mingle them with your Sack. Put in three quarters of a pound of Sugar into the Wine and Eggs, with a Nutmeg grated, and a little beaten Cinnamon; set the Bason on the fire with the Wine and Eggs, and let it be hot. Then put in the Cream boiling from the fire, pour it on high, but stir it not; cover it with a dish, and when it is settled, strew on the top a little fine Sugar mingled with three grains of Ambergris, and one grain of Musk, and serve it up.

Posset Pot. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Oh how I love the splendor of an affluent medieval kitchen. Let’s take a moment to break down a few of the ingredients mentioned above:

Sac: Sac is a fortified white wine that was very popular in the Middle Ages. Imported from Spain and the Canary Islands it is said to be the predecessor of Sherry.

Ambergris: a popular ingredient throughout time, it is basically whale poop. Sperm whale poop to be exact. Some theorize it may also be Whale vomit. Either way, it’s from the digestive track.

Musk: Also a common ingredient in the affluent medieval pantry. If you were a bit horrified by the thought of sprinkling Whale turds on your warm curdled milk drink, how about topping it off with a little anal gland secretion. Oh yes, Musk comes from the bum. Most likely the Musk would have come from a Beaver. Referred to as Castoreum it is a yellowish liquid produced from the Castor sac found near the beaver’s anal gland and has been a popular medicine, perfume, and food additive since Roman times.

Moving on…

What is a Nog?

The etymology of the word Eggnog is said to be derived from the term Nog, an old English word referring to a variety of strong beer, some also speculate the word may be derived from Noggin, a wooden mug used to serve drinks in taverns in the late 18th-early 19th century. No one truly knows, and so for now it will remain a mystery.

Eggnog in Colonial America

“Christmas Eve in Colonial Times.” Library of Congress Archives

How did Eggnog gain popularity in the Colonies? Well, it turns out farmland was bountiful in the Colonial Americas, milk and eggs became a staple household ingredient, as did cheap rum. Nutritious and relatively shelf stable Eggnog became a popular libation. America’s first President, George Washington loved him some eggnog, and I don’t mean a nice light nip. The following recipe is actually the original recipe, written by George Washington himself and served at holiday festivities at Mount Vernon.

“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 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.”

I think it’s safe to say that George Washington knew how to throw a party.

The Nog Crawl

Thanks to the miracle of the internet, finding old eggnog recipes has never been easier. I happened upon the fantastic book “ How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant Companion” written by the father of American cocktails Jerry Thomas in 1862. The book includes a recipe for a Baltimore Eggnog. I3n 19th century Baltimore it was common for young lads to go door to door on New Years day drinking eggnog at every stop. The point of this crawl, much as it is today was to be the last man standing.

If the thought of an eggnog hangover makes you throw up a little in your mouth, you can be reassured that Mr. Thomas’ recipe will not cause you any pain. As a matter of fact, it can be used as a curative drink. Who knew?

Baltimore Egg Nogg

(For a party of fifteen.)

“Take the yellow of sixteen eggs and twelve table-spoon-fuls of pulverized loaf-sugar, and beat them to the consistence of cream; to this add two-thirds of a nutmeg grated,and beat well together; then mix in half a pint of good brandy or Jamaica rum, and two wine-glasses of Madeira wine. Have ready the whites of the eggs, beaten to a stiff froth, and beat them into the above-described mixture.When this is all done, stir in six pints of good rich milk.There is no heat used. Egg Nogg made in this manner is digestible, and will not cause headache. It makes an excellent drink for de-bilitated persons, and a nourishing diet”

Eggnog Riots West Point Military Academy 1826

West Point Military Academy hasn’t always been so prestigious and respected. In the early 19th century it was a bit rough around the edges, and many did not take it seriously. President James Munro appointed a strict War of 1812 Major, Sylvanus Thayer as Superintendent to help clean it up.

Under Thayer’s leadership, the students were taught discipline, honor, responsibility, and all that fun stuff. In December of 1826 Thayer who was fed up with illegal drinking at the Academy, announced that the Cadet’s traditional Christmas eggnog will be served without the traditional Christmas hooch.

Not to be deterred by the pesky announcement, three enterprising cadets hired a boat, crossed the Hudson River, bought a gallon of whiskey and bribe a guard 35 cents to remain silent. They return to the north barracks victorious and undetected.

Superintendent Thayer knew that alcohol would be smuggled in. It happened in the passed and he dealt with it on a case by case basis. For that reason, he had only assigned two officer’s to keep an eye on the north barracks. As the night was quiet, both the officers went to bed around midnight only to be awakened four hours later by partying coming from a room within the barracks.

The raucous revellers were caught red handed. One of the young men decided to go incognito and hide behind his hat. ‘If I can’t see him he can’t see me!’ Needless to say, the party was shut down and the lads were not happy. By the time Christmas morning rolled around the barracks had been destroyed, windows smashed, banisters broken and there were a lot of men feeling very very hungover. In the end 19 men were court-martialled but not all of them were dismissed. What makes this Egg Nog riot all the more interesting is that two of the students at West Point were Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, both kind of a big deal in American history.

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Ol’ Sylvanus would have allowed the cadets their traditional Christmas celebration.

West Point’s original grounds, including the North Barracks (the leftmost building). Image via Wikipedia.

Modern day Nog:

Nowadays eggnog is mostly associated with the antiseptic additive filled grocery store variety.It’s a shame our fear of raw eggs and fat has clouded our judgement. We have allowed one of the oldest drinks in North America to be commandeered by big business. Making your own nog at home is incredibly satisfying. If you are unsure of the raw eggs there are many pasteurized varieties. You can even find egg-less nog recipes. I prefer the unpasteurized variety, and have attached a few of my favorite recipes. You can get pretty damn fancy, but remember this simple beverage was invented long before electricity.

Classic Eggnog Cocktail: Serious Eats

Eggnog Three Ways, Adventures in Cooking:

For some reason, if you don’t like your homemade nog. Have no fear, eggnog makes delicious

French toast. Simply pour eggnog into bowl, soak sliced bread in eggnog and pan-fry or bake as you would regular French toast.

This holiday season, as you sip on your merry glass of Nog, keep in mind that you are imbibing in a tradition that has been around for generations. Take a moment to savoir the history as well as the season. After all, as Homer Simpson So eloquently points out

“Tis the season, Marge! We only get thirty sweet noggy days.Then the government takes it away again. [pours some on his cereal]”

Santé !

Genevieve Robitaille

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