Eggnog: The History, the Basics, and the Best Recipe Around

It's a divisive drink. But done right, a frosty glass of the stuff will get you in the holiday spirit in no time.

The holidays bring out some profound convictions in all of us, stirring fidelity to family, tradition, and faith to an annual high point. This being the case, sometimes our deeply-held beliefs clash with others’. Obviously, we’re referring to that most time-worn debate. Eggnog: delicious or disgusting?

Three main factors contribute to this controversy:

  • Do you use real eggs for eggnog? Is that even safe?

  • What kind of booze do you add? Whiskey? Rum? Brandy?

  • Assuming you don’t buy a carton of eggnog (even that phrase sounds off-putting), how do you make it at home?

Before answering these questions, let’s take a look at how this most venerated and reviled holiday hodgepodge came into being.

A Rich History

As with all truly classic drinks, some mystery surrounds the origin of eggnog. Most sources agree that it probably came out of early medieval Britain. A likely ancestor is posset, a hot milky beverage later augmented with eggs and figs by monks in the 1200s. The word “nog” may come from the Middle English “noggin,” which was a small drinking vessel carved from wood.

Supposedly, eggnog eventually gained popularity with the English aristocracy, who made the monumental decision to combine it with booze -- specifically, brandy. It also shows up in North American travel literature in the late 1700s, where it was served with Caribbean rum (less expensive than stiffly-taxed brandy). Then after the Revolutionary War, the British rum trade no longer directly involved the US, so bourbon became the additive of choice.

The divisive drink appears again in American history during the so-called Eggnog Riot at West Point, when 70 cadets got tanked on eggnog during a Christmas party, assaulted some officers and wrecked a barracks. Nineteen were dismissed from West Point altogether. And you thought you had a rough history with this stuff.

Eggs: A Dirty Dozen?

So, assuming you use raw eggs in your recipe (nearly all homemade recipes do), is eggnog actually safe to drink? Well, according to Science Friday and Popular Science, yeah, it’s safe. Basically, they recommend you add booze to kill possible salmonella and also that you age it in a sealed container for three or four weeks, booze included. But if you don't have the time or patience for aging the stuff, you can hedge your bets by picking up either pasteurized eggs or at least fresh, grade A ones.

How to Make It Well

While there are dozens of recipes out there, we thought it appropriate to give you a tried and true one from up in the north country of New York state, where they depend on this stuff to get them through really miserable winters. This recipe is from Jacob Rakovan, head bartender of The Daily Refresher in Rochester.

  1. Beat the yolks and whites of 6 eggs separately.

  2. Add 3/4 cup of sugar to the whites when they become stiff.

  3. Mix the whites and yolks.

  4. Pour in 1 pint of heavy cream to the mixture. In a pinch, you can use Half and Half, but for best results you want a rich, heavy cream.

  5. Pour in 1 pint of milk. Whole is best -- the holidays aren't the time to worry about keeping your trim figure.

That's your base. But now comes the good part: the booze.

  1. Add 2 generous cups of bourbon. Black Button Little Barrel Bourbon, made locally in Rochester, is especially good.

  2. Add a healthy dose of black rum, and a splash of vanilla paste. Nielsen Massey's is great because it's also got a bourbon note to it, but you can substitute regular vanilla extract if that's all you've got on hand.

  3. Stir all of this wonderment together and serve very, very cold.

  4. Top with a dusting of nutmeg, cinnamon and powdered clove.

If a mug or two of that doesn't get you in the holiday spirit, we're not sure anything will.

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