Hook & Barrel’s Lisa Kadane breaks down the fascinating history and enduring popularity of eggnog, followed by two recipes for the drink.
In a classic scene from the movie Christmas Vacation, Clark Griswold and Cousin Eddie admire the Griswold’s towering Christmas tree while sipping eggnog out of moose-shaped glass mugs with antler handles. As Cousin Eddie prattles on about his problems, Clark offers, “Can I refill your eggnog for you? Get you something to eat? Drive you out into the middle of nowhere and leave you for dead?”
While most of us don’t have a crass cousin crashing the holidays, many of us do have bowls of eggnog to fuel the festivities. Like mistletoe and the Baby It’s Cold Outside carol, it’s on the naughty side of Christmas customs—you don’t have to love it, but the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years just wouldn’t be the same without it.
Eggnog Stretches Back to the Revolutionary War
As with most traditions, eggnog has legs. The seasonal combo of raw eggs, sugar, milk and alcohol has been around since the Revolutionary War, says drinks historian Robert Moss, author of Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the American South.
A 1788 reference in a New Jersey newspaper reports a young man devouring a glass of eggnog, while a travel log from the 1790s by Isaac Weld titled Travels Through the States of North America, describes American travelers taking a “hearty draught” of egg-nog, “a mixture composed of new milk, eggs, rum, and sugar, beat up together…”
“That’s the original formula,” says Moss. “If you were drinking in the south—and this is where they think eggnog originated—it was imported brandy if you had enough money, rum, and then whiskey was way down the list.”
Masking Alcohol to Enjoy It
Back then, people added all kinds of things to their drinks to mask the taste of alcohol, which was often harsh. In medieval times, folks would even add milk to beer and wine, a drink called ‘posset,’ says Frances Leary, beverage curator at The Galt House in Louisville, KY, and manager of the hotel’s Down One Bourbon Bar. When eggs entered the mix, you got eggnog. Legend has it George Washington made a boozy nog with rum, bourbon and sherry, Leary says.
As for its unusual name, eggnog is a portmanteau of the words egg and nog, which was a slang term for a strong drink. The two came together to mean a “potent egg drink,” says Moss.
The Eggnog Riot of 1826
The power and allure of the seasonal treat gained notoriety at West Point military academy during the Eggnog Riot of 1826, which took place on Christmas Eve. Drinking on campus was prohibited, but cadets rebelled against the temperance mandate and snuck eggnog into the dorms, says Moss. The resulting revelry led to scuffles with officers, wrecked academy property, and the expulsion of students.
It was enough mayhem, in other words, for the drink to earn a permanent place on the holiday naughty list.
Variations Still Hold True to Tradition
Its popularity even travels beyond the United States—other countries have their own versions of eggnog, made with local spirits and ingredients. In Scotland, Auld Man’s Milk combines scotch and sweetened cream with separated eggs. Puerto Ricans mix rum with coconut, condensed milk and spices to create Coquito. And Mexico makes Rompope, which is eggnog enhanced with tree nuts (typically almonds), vanilla and cinnamon.
Stateside, eggnog never ventures far from its base of milk, eggs, sugar and those holiday baking spices that wrap your palette in a yuletide hug (think cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves). The Gin Joint in Charleston, for example, serves up a traditional recipe featuring cognac and dark rum.
“Customers really get into the holiday spirit with it,” says owner James Bolt.
Popular, Fun, Christmasy
The AC Lounge in Spartanburg, S.C. makes an on-trend salted caramel eggnog with caramel sauce and spiced rum. Food and beverage manager Stephanie Snipes loves that families can easily make their own nog by adding their favorite spirit and spices.
“Eggnog will always be popular because it is such a fun, easy drink to make,” she says. “Plus it evokes all those memories of how holidays felt so special when you were a child.”
Still, despite its wide reach and nostalgia, not everyone is a fan of traditional eggnog. Those grocery store cartons especially can be overly sweet and heavy, and the idea of drinking raw egg yolks is not universally appealing.
A Facelift for Eggnog
“I think eggnog itself can use a little bit of a facelift,” says Down One Bourbon Bar’s Leary.
Her twist on the drink, which will be featured during Down One’s December pop-up event, Whiskey Wonderland, is to turn eggnog into a foam that tops an espresso martini. This way, customers enjoy sweet double-oaked bourbon and cold brew through the creaminess and spices of an eggnog topping.
Leary’s hope is that the seasonal cocktail, called a Cold Kentucky Night, will tweak a new generation of drinkers to eggnog 2.0. If that fails, holidaymakers can always mask the taste of eggnog with booze, which is a lot more refined now than it was back in the day. We can all raise a glass of nog to that!
Salted Caramel Eggnog (traditional, with a twist)
Ingredients (Serves 4)
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 cups milk
- 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
- Pinch of salt
- 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
- 2 tbsp. caramel sauce
- 1/2 cup Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum
Method: Whisk egg yolks and sugar together in a mixing bowl. In a medium saucepan, bring milk, heavy cream, nutmeg, caramel and salt to a light simmer. Remove hot milk mixture from heat and slowly add to egg yolks and sugar, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to heat for a few minutes or until it is slightly thickened. (It will thicken more as it cools.*) Remove from heat, then add vanilla extract and alcohol. Cover and let cool. Serve in glasses rimmed with caramel sauce and dipped in salt.
*If the cooled mixture is too thick, add in a few tablespoons of milk then mix until it’s smooth.
Eggnog can be stored in the fridge for up to a week.
—Courtesy Stephanie Snipes, the AC Lounge
Cold Kentucky Night (Eggnog 2.0)
Ingredients (Serves 1)
- 1.5 oz. Woodford Double Oaked
- 1.5 oz. cold brew coffee
- 0.5 oz. Kahlua
- 2 dashes Reagan’s Orange Bitters
Method: Add all ingredients to a shaker and shake vigorously. Then fine mesh strain into a chilled martini glass. Top with 3 spoonfuls of Eggnog Cold Foam* and garnish with freshly shaved nutmeg and 3 espresso beans.
Topping: Eggnog Cold Foam
- 1/2 cup eggnog
- 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 tbsp. brown sugar
Method: Add ingredients to a mixing bowl and combine with an immersion blender until frothy but not whipped.
—Courtesy Frances Leary, Down One Bourbon Bar