Most of us have been exposed to Eggnog in some form or another, that thick golden liquid, viscous with eggs and cream, or corn syrup and xanthan gum, (depending on if you’ve bought it or made it). A divisive drink, Eggnog has the power to part a room right down the middle, separating those who hate it from those who can’t get through the winter without it. However, before there was Eggnog there was “Posset” a milky brew not totally dissimilar to what we drink today. Popular throughout parts of Europe in the 1300s, Posset was a special favorite among the British. Touted as a cure for colds and fevers, it didn’t hurt that it was delicious and gave you a buzz.
The Posset Examined
Though Posset recipes varied widely, depending on region and ingredient availability. In general, it was a heavy concoction comprised of “sugar, spices, and hot milk curdled with alcohol”. I’m chalking the “curdled” bit up to nothing more than told-timey phrasing. Early on the alcohol used was generally wine or ale, while later recipes tended to favor brandy, Madeira, or sherry. Okay, things are sounding pretty good so far, unfortunately, this is where Posset takes a complete departure from anything remotely like eggnog and starts down a weird medieval path so foreign to today’s tastes that it verges on nauseating. The heavily sweetened and spiced mixture was then thickened with bread, biscuits, oatmeal or almond paste. Once the ingredients were combined an original recipe suggests: “covering the Posset up close for half an hour or more over a seething pot of water or over very slow embers, in a basin, and it will become like a cheese.” Apparently, nothing got the gothic glands pumping like the prospect of drinking a seething vat of sweet, runny, cheese.
These thickeners separated forming a crust on top of the brew. The top layer was generally enjoyed like a dessert and eaten with a spoon while the liquid bottom was drunk. So popular was Posset at one time that specially crafted “Posset Pots” were constructed. With handles on both sides and a spout similar to that of the teapot located at the bottom. This lowered spout allowed Posset drinkers to pour out their cocktail into cups leaving its edible lid unmarred.
This appetizing concoction was popular for more than its warm lumpy texture and ability to be served both at the beginning and the end of the meal. Before refrigeration and the now common practice of pasteurization, pure milk was a rarity in many parts of England, especially in the cities where people frequently fell ill from drinking contaminated milk. The high alcohol content in Posset made drinking the raw milk safe, and had the perk of getting you pie-eyed.
“Egg and Grog in a Noggin”
In an effort to distance itself from the weird curdled and separated life it had lived in Europe; when Posset arrived in the New World in the 1700’s it underwent a complete reinvention of self. Changing its name and throwing away the thick crust of glutenous scraps it used to wear as a crown, Posset now went by the name of “Eggnog” and boasted a healthy amount of eggs instead of oatmeal.
There is some conjecture as to how Eggnog got its new name. Rum in those days was often referred to as “grog” and some say that the name eggnog came from the words egg and grog put together. A couple glasses in and it isn’t hard to believe that a few letters may have been lost in translation.
This is just one of the possible origins of the name. In the 17th century, a strong ale was referred to as “nog” and a “noggin” was a small wooden cup commonly found in taverns and pubs in which they served the nog.
At this point it’s anyone’s guess as to the true origin of the name, it could even be a mixture of the two stories. Perhaps it was originally “egg and grog in a noggin”. A rambling title with an excessive use of the letter “g”, it’s no surprise that it was shortened.
Eggnog, the Drink of the Marginalized
The newly revamped Eggnog experienced a popularity among the early American settlers rivaling that of its European climax. Most colonists were farmers at that point, and milk and eggs were in plentiful supply. The heavily taxed alcohols that were traditionally used to make the cocktail, however, were not. Though Madeira was scarce, the settlers were practically swimming in rum thanks to the Triangular Trade with the Caribbean and it became common practice to use rum instead of sherry or brandy.
With the use of Rum- then referred to as “the drink of the marginalized”- eggnog became more affordable and was soon a favorite among indentured servants and African slaves.
The Eggnog Riot of 1826
Yes, Eggnog was a popular drink at one point, so loved by the masses that it even incited a riot in 1826 among the cadets at West Point Academy. At the notion of their beloved inebriants being banished by the teetotaling new headmaster, the cadets smuggled booze onto the school grounds and made vast quantities of eggnog. The night ended in two assaults, a severe amount of damage to the windows and staircases of the north barracks, and the court-martialing of 11 cadets.
From New York to Washington, Eggnog left a path of destruction in its wake, transferring its vice-like grip from the cadets at West Point to the Politicians in D.C. Among the House of Representatives, overindulgence of the golden nectar became so prominent that in 1831 the “Chicago Press and Tribune” wrote an article on the subject.
“Eggnog has ruled the country today,” began the editorial. “It is a famous drink in public and private houses in Washington on Christmas, and some of the members, in spite of it, reached the house today at noon, and some, in consequence of it, did not get there at all.”
The article goes on to lament the grasp Eggnog had over the country and comes to a climax with a resounding call to arms against the powers of their milky enemy.
Eggnog even worked its way into the oval office. Both Washington and Eisenhower had recipes for the creamy punch and were said to take great pride in making it themselves and serving the strong brew to the most courageous of their guests.
Today Eggnog is still enjoyed during the winter months though many buy and drink the poor substitute sold in the supermarket. A mixture so gluey and sweet it requires a large amount of alcohol to make it palatable. If you make your own Eggnog at home, as I suggest you do, not only will you be able to enjoy a much better cocktail but you can also experiment with aging your eggnog. With frequent tastings, this is a very pleasant way to get “sciency” in the kitchen.
“Eggs are very plenty and very cheap, and lots of Eggnog are to be drunk. The ‘boys’ are bound to do it.”
12 large chicken eggs
1 pound sugar
1 pint half n half
1 pint whole milk
1 pint heavy cream
1 cup Jamaican rum
1 cup cognac
1 cup bourbon
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (plus more for serving)
¼ tsp kosher salt
Beat the yolks with the sugar, nutmeg, and salt in a large mixing bowl until the mixture lightens in color and thickens slightly, this can be done in a standing mixer but I prefer to do it by hand. Pour in the dairy and booze slowly, whisking as you pour.
The Eggnog can be enjoyed immediately, whisked until frothy and garnished with freshly grated nutmeg but it really does become better with age. Six months in and the booze and eggs and cream have melded together into something more than the summation of its parts. Into a flavor that can only be described as Eggnog.
*If aging, I like to add a cinnamon stick and a vanilla bean. The bean doesn’t need to be fresh, the reserved husk of a previously used vanilla pod is enough to impart flavor and is a good way to recycle your pods.