I’m not going to lie to you: I’ve never had eggnog. Not during the holidays, not during the rest of the year. I know it’s typically used as a vessel for alcohol, and I know that a number of recipes exist, making no two eggnogs the same (experts like Florida bar manager Hunter Bryant will say that non-drinkers simply haven’t had good ‘nog) -- but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. So, I definitely don’t know why it’s strictly a Christmastime beverage. We’re all about to learn a little something today.
The origins of the word “eggnog” itself is tricky. There are lots of potential roots of the word, including, but probably not limited to:
- The English used to drink something called a “posset,” which contained hot milk, wine and spice.
- In Ireland, the word “noggin” isn’t just a chipper way to refer to your head, but it also means “a small drinking vessel.”
- Around Norfolk in England, “nog” was referred to as a strong variety of beer.
- There are likely Scottish roots to the word “nugg,” meaning warm ale.
- Those in the U.K. crafted “grog,” which is what they called any watered-down alcohol akin to what you get at that touristy bar where your out-of-town friend insists on paying $14 for a vodka soda.
- From there, any kind of milk and wine drink was called an “egg ‘n’ grog.”
We assume, out of this convoluted game of word association, that they finally settled on the shortened “eggnog.”
At least we have a starting point, though: the English. Those prissy sons of guns, as with anything else, wanted to make a higher-end version of the hot milk-and-ale concoction, so they started adding figs, sherry or brandy and expensive spices like nutmeg and cinnamon to their mugs. (This did also hold practical reasons -- the alcohol prevented the milk from spoiling as quickly during a time before mini fridges.)
Eggnog made its way to America in the 18th century thanks to the colonists. And contrary to their English counterparts back across the pond, they swapped the sherry for rum and, later, when the English-owned Caribbean ran out of rum, moonshine. If there was one thing Americans had plenty of, after all, it was dairy-producing livestock and whiskey-generating grain farms.
The drink today is typically a blend of milk or heavy cream, eggs and spices topped off with your favorite libation (rum, brandy or bourbon for best results, so I hear).
None of this, though, really explains why the people who do choose to drink ‘nog (I’m still gathering the courage 20-something years later) only do so once the holidays kick into gear. That explanation is pragmatic as well: When the English started drinking it, they were drinking it warm. You wouldn’t order a hot pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks in the middle of July, would you?
That, and what do we all do best during the holidays? Drink. Our predecessors were probably just looking for another reason to break out the whiskey, and Christmas seemed like a great excuse. Relatable, really.
Eggnog, then, is a result of pseudo sensible preservation of class and liquor. Happy holidays.