#WhitworthAdvent: Possets, Riots, Presidents: A Brief History of Eggnog

Now, drinking what is effectively boozy custard may not be everyone’s first choice for a holiday beverage, but this drink has a pretty storied history across the world, especially in the US.  

For the uninitiated, eggnog is a sweet and chilled drink made with vanilla, milk, cream, and of course, eggs. It is often flavoured with distilled spirits, such as rum or brandy, however go into any North American supermarket around Christmastime and you will find cartons of non-alcoholic eggnog in the dairy aisle.  

This humble drink may have had its origins in England, however it is in the US where eggnog’s popularity really took off. 

Origins

Historical research suggests that eggnog had humble beginnings as a simple dessert, called posset, and was first recorded in 16h century England. Traditionally, possets were served with figs as a winter treat. It is unclear where the term “eggnog” comes from, however some speculate to be a combination of the term “nog”, meaning strong beer, with its primary ingredient, eggs.  

Possets then evolved to become a popular wintertime toasting tradition to good health amongst the British upper classes during the early modern period. It is unclear why serving possets around wintertime began to wane as a tradition on the British Isles but some speculate it was due to increasing prices of dairy and eggs. Now, possets are certainly still around today as a popular treat around all seasons, but it was not until the beginnings of colonisation in what is now the United States that eggnog regained its seasonal popularity. 

As British and European colonisers began to settle within the thirteen colonies, the abundance of dairy farms and ready availability of cheap Caribbean rum meant that the drinking of eggnog saw a resurgence in early American history. So much so, it is reported from Mount Vernon kitchen records that the first President George Washington enjoyed serving eggnog to his guests, though his recipe was famously very alcoholic due to his inclusion of rum, rye whisky, and sherry!

The drink remained a main beverage to having during the festive season, and it became so popular amongst the American people that the drink is even responsible for student uprisings! 

American Uprisings

Much like student uprisings here in England when university regulations just got a bit much, the esteemed military academy West Point, during the Christmas of 1826, had to quell the rioting of its cadets. Known infamously as the Eggnog Riots, cadets flouted the academy’s newly mandated no alcohol policy by smuggling in rum and brandy to indulge in their favourite festive treat at their annual Christmas party. 

As usual with these sorts of happenings, the party was found out by the top brass and Captains Thornton and Hitchcock were sent to quell the festivities. However, the cadets were not in any mood to stop their partying, and fights soon broke out. Windows and furniture were shattered, Captain Thornton was knocked unconscious with a plank of wood, and drunkenly enraged cadets made threats to end Captain Hitchcock’s life. 

The Christmas riots were concluded with 19 expulsions from West Point, and since then the story has become an infamous episode in Americans’ love of eggnog. 

Recipes

After all that, let’s see what the fuss is about. Below is a famous eggnog recipe attributed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953 – 1961), kindly shared on twitter by the US National Archives (if you want to make it non-alcoholic, forgo the bourbon). What do you think? Or would you rather have a less tooth-achingly sweet beverage to go with your holiday cheer? 

Be sure to drink responsibly and happy holidays! 

Bria

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