It’s the intoxicating concoction that offers use of Grandma’s punchbowl once a year. Eggnog is actually a successor to a drink called posset, made of hot milk curdled with beer or wine, often spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. Lady Macbeth used poisoned possets on the guards outside Duncan's quarters in “the Scottish play.” Beautifully enameled posset sets for mixing and serving the drink were popular gifts among the wealthy of Great Britain through the 18th century—fresh dairy products or imported spices were a privilege of the grandees, although the drinks were sometimes recommended as a tonic even for those “below stairs.” (The BBC TV series “Poldark,” about a British soldier returning from the American Revolution, referred to treating servants with possets when they were ill.)
Modern eggnog evolved out of British tavern culture. Warm drinks served in pubs were made of milk or cream and eggs—sweetened, spiced, and spiked with brandy or sherry—mostly for the wealthy to keep cozy in winter. In America, before the Industrial Revolution moved many families from farms to cities, dairy products and eggs were plentiful, and some kind of diluted alcohol was a typical drink in colonial times. “Water was unclean, and most people, both adults and children, drank distilled beverages,” said Frederick Opie, Ph.D., Professor of History and Society at Babson College in Boston.
Rum was readily available from the Caribbean, colonized by the British, so it was substituted for more expensive and heavily taxed booze. Rum was known as grog, often served in small wooden vessels called noggins, and eventually, legend has it, egg-and-grog became eggnog. It most likely was associated with holiday fare because of its sugar content, which was considered a luxury.
As the "Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America" notes, eggnog was often served for breakfast in bed on Christmas morning at wealthy plantations in the pre-Civil War South, where the season coincided with the end of the harvest. The custom was established by the yuletide tradition of wassail (a hot mulled cider) to ensure a good harvest among British country gentlemen who were the ancestors of Anglican southerners. Throughout the war, a plantation owner often prepared his personal recipe for eggnog in a large punch bowl and magnanimously gave a cup to those who had kept the household and the farm running.
For the last century, ever since the Milk Board lobbied the U.S. government for mandatory pasteurization, dairy products are considered safe to drink without the “purifying” properties of alcohol, but the tradition of a boozy eggnog is celebrated by Ken Albala, food historian at the University of the Pacific, who keeps a homemade version on his kitchen counter all year long and drinks a glass every Christmas. “There’s so much alcohol in it, it’s completely safe,” he said. “It mellows over time and gets better every year.”
For most of us, a rich homemade eggnog is a delicious holiday treat straight from the fridge—and, if you’re lucky, into Grandma’s punchbowl.
Watch how to make a deliciously boozy and totally safe holiday eggnog: