The Origins of Eggnog: A Favorite Christmas Cocktail
The Centuries-Old Fuel for Holiday Parties
Eggnog is a drink that stirs up memories for most people, and you either love it or hate it. However you feel about it personally, it’s hard to deny that it is embedded in holiday traditions. It’s been that way for centuries, and the drink has taken on many spiked and nonalcoholic variations as it traveled the world.
The exact origins of eggnog are unknown. It has 13th-century English roots, developed into a beverage for aristocrats, and found its home as an essential Christmas drink in colonial America. Eggnog remains a popular cocktail, and its story is as fascinating as the drink itself.
Why Is it Called Eggnog?
The word eggnog may not have much appeal. The guttural sound and thought of drinking eggs are enough to make some people back away. There are differing opinions as to how it took on the now-famous name.
One story claims that eggnog derives from “nog,” an Old English word for strong beer. There’s also the possibility that it derived from “noggin,” a word for a small cup used in the 16th century. Another version attributes the name to American colonists who referred to thick drinks as “grogs” and eggnog as “egg-and-grog.” By the time it appeared in print, the words were mashed together to create “eggnog” (sometimes “egg nogg” or “egg-nog”).
The First Printed Uses of Eggnog
Eggnog may have been in use earlier, but the first known written uses of the word didn’t occur until the late 1700s. The earliest is in a poem written by Maryland minister (and close friend of George Washington) Jonathan Boucher around 1774, though it wasn’t published until 30 years later. In the press, one of eggnog’s first appearances was in a 1788 New-Jersey Journal article. It describes a young man with a voracious appetite who enjoyed “thirty raw eggs, a glass of egg nog, and another of brandy sling.”1
Where Did Eggnog Originate?
It is believed that eggnog began in Europe. As early as the 13th century, medieval monks in Britain were known to drink “posset,” a warm ale punch with eggs and figs. Over time, this likely merged with the various milk and wine punches often served at social gatherings.
By the 17th century, sherry became the primary ingredient, and it was popular to use this eggy beverage as a toast to one’s health and prosperity. The aristocracy primarily consumed it because milk, eggs, and sherry were scarce commodities in Europe at the time.
When the brew made it to the American colonies, it took on a whole new taste and popularity. The rum that American colonists could get from the Caribbean was considerably less expensive than the brandy, other liquors, and wine shipped from England. And so, along with the readily available supply of milk and eggs in the colonies, the rum version quickly became a drink for people of all classes.
When Did Eggnog Become a Christmas Tradition?
As a rich and often alcoholic drink, eggnog became a familiar fixture during the holiday season across the colonies and, eventually, the new country of the United States in the 1700s. Eggnog was frequently made without alcohol, and each region would adapt the drink to their personal tastes. In the South, for instance, people tended to prefer whiskey over rum.
It’s said that George Washington devised his own recipe and that only the most courageous guests would partake. One popularly attributed recipe to the first President was a boozy batch of brandy, rye whiskey, Jamaican rum, and sherry. However, according to “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” (and librarians at Mount Vernon), no eggnog recipe was found in the Washington family’s archive. It’s likely a 19th-century recipe.
In the early days, eggnog was served warm. By the time “Professor” Jerry Thomas printed the first bartending guides in the late 1800s, eggnog was enjoyed cold as well. In the 1887 printing of “The Bar-tender’s Guide,” it’s noted that “hot egg nogg” was “very popular in California” while the others were served over ice or cooled in a tub of ice. The recipes used brandy and rum or Madiera wine, sherry, or hard cider.
Countries all over the world have versions of eggnog:
- In Poland, Jewish communities have long enjoyed kogel mogel.
- In Germany, eierlikör is a popular homemade egg liquor.
- In Puerto Rico, coconut juice or milk was added. Today, the eggs are typically left out and the drink is called coquito.
- In Mexico, eggnog became rompope with Mexican cinnamon, vanilla, and either rum or grain alcohol.
- In Peru, it is made with the Peruvian brandy, pisco.
Eggnog in the Modern World
The basic formula for eggnog has not changed over the years: eggs are beaten with sugar, milk, cream, and (often) a distilled spirit or fortified wine. Still a favorite for holiday parties, there are several modern renditions of the classic eggnog recipe, and they can be quite fun and unique. It is a fantastic base for experimentation, and everything from additional spices to tequila has been added to the eggy cocktail. There are even delicious vegan eggnogs.
No matter which eggnog you choose to serve, it is sure to be a winner with most (admittedly, not all) of your holiday guests. However, for those who wish to go nog-less, there are many other spirited holiday drinks that are sure to be a hit and lift anyone’s holiday spirits.