I belong to the sort of family that purchases eggnog in cartons around the holidays, decidedly without alcohol. In fact, I grew up unaware that my anticipated holiday dairy bomb had any boozy connotations.
Once I started drinking, it became evident that eggnog wasn’t a classy holiday option in most circles. It was the equivalent of a Sex on the Beach or a Cosmo — you weren’t supposed to taste the alcohol. I learned to keep my childhood memories to myself.
But as the craft cocktail movement gained steam, house-made eggnogs started popping up on menus. I started sampling eggnog made by bartenders I trust. The results were reminiscent of my childhood, but countless times better. A new holiday tradition was born.
Of course, it’s about time eggnog had a bit of a comeback, it’s been around since sometime before 1788 (when it was first mentioned in print in a Philadelphia newspaper). Most scholars trace the origins back even further, to a medieval drink called posset, which was popular in Great Britain through the 19th century. At its most essential level, posset was composed of hot milk, wine or ale, spices, and often eggs.
By the time eggnog was an established American institution in the 1860s, it was almost exclusively a holiday drink, reserved for Christmas and New Year’s Day, often in the morning. Suddenly, a drink masking alcohol with dairy, eggs, spice, and sweetness makes a lot more sense: eggnog epitomizes the brunch drink. In fact, with those ingredients, it’s almost brunch in itself.
These days, bourbon is likely your spirit of choice for eggnog, but originally it was all about the rum, brandy, and fortified wine. Again, this concoction isn’t truly about tasting the nuance of your spirit. In fact, since spirits were likely a bit harsh and wild in the time of eggnog’s rise, masking them might have been a necessity.
Perhaps my favorite research tidbit involves a spirit I'd never considered adding to eggnog: mezcal. General Thomas Green, of the Army of the Texas Republic, was held prisoner along with 160 of his men by Mexican general Santa Ana in 1863. In spite of this, they wanted to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the battle of San Jacinto, which brought Texas independence from Mexico. They convinced the guards to smuggle in donkey milk, eggs, sugar, and mezcal, and made an eggnog "as never before was seen or drank under the nineteenth degree of north latitude," according to Green. I can only imagine he is correct.
If you want to take your home nog game to the next level, consider aging it. According to Alton Brown, six months to a year in the fridge creates something truly special, much greater than the sum of its parts.
The legendary Jerry Thomas, author of the first cocktail book, How To Mix Drinks, included six eggnog recipes. The following recipe is one of those originals, translated for the modern drinker by the incomparable cocktail historian David Wondrich in his book Imbibe!. It’s enough for a party, if you’re so inclined. Either way, get your hands on some craft eggnog this season, possibly at brunch.
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Baltimore Egg Nogg
Original recipe by Jerry Thomas, annotated by David Wondrich in Imbibe!
Take the yolks of 16 eggs and 12 tablespoonfuls of sugar [3-4 ounces superfine sugar], and beat them to the consistency of cream; to this add two-thirds of a nutmeg grated, and beat well together; then mix in half a pint of good brandy or Jamaica rum, and two wineglasses [4 ounces] of Madeira wine. Have ready the whites of the eggs, beaten to a stiff froth, and beat them into the above-described mixture. When this is all done, stir in six pints of good rich milk. There is no heat used.
For best results, mix and refrigerate for 2-3 hours.
Notes on ingredients: Feel free to use 10 eggs rather than 16; go with large rather than jumbo. Wondrich recommends 5 ounces of cognac and 3 of rum. He uses Bual Madeira.