Photograph by John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
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A cup of holiday cheer, eggnog, once led to a riot at West Point Military Academy.
Photograph by John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
The Plate

The Hale and Hearty History of Eggnog

Nowadays eggnog is a seasonal drink, only available in stores in the “hot” eggnog months of November and December. Some argue that this is just as well. After all, eggnog clocks in at 400 or more calories per cup, a hefty percentage of that in saturated fat and cholesterol. And that’s just the calorie count for plain eggnog, without the enlivening brandy, bourbon, or rum. There’s no way this stuff is good for us.

On the other hand, it’s sweet, creamy, and delicious, and for others, a mere two months of eggnog isn’t nearly long enough. Homer Simpson—who blames the short eggnog season on the government—pours it on his cereal.

Eggnog is a drink with a long history. It’s a descendant of the medieval posset—a mix of hot milk, booze, sugar, and spices—drunk because people loved it, but also traditionally touted as a cure for colds, chills, fever, and flu. The Mickey Finns with which Lady Macbeth knocked out King Duncan’s guards were cunningly concealed in possets, which, due to the yumminess and popularity of possets, worked like a charm.

The word eggnog seems to have been an American invention, first appearing in the late 18th or early 19th century. No one is sure where it came from. It may have evolved from nog, an old English name for a variety of strong beer, or from noggin, a small wooden mug used to serve drinks in taverns.

George Washington was a fan of eggnog, and eggnog made to his specifications was served at holiday parties at Mount Vernon. The first president’s brew wasn’t an eggnog for the fainthearted, given its alcohol content:

George Washington’s Eggnog

One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, ½ pint rye whiskey, ½ pint Jamaica rum, ¼ pint sherry – mix liquor first, then separate the yolks and whites of eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let sit in a cold place for several days.

The recipe ends with a congenial “Taste frequently.” (Note that Washington does not specify the number of eggs in the recipe, but our modern sources suggest a dozen for this recipe.)

The not-insignificant alcohol content of colonial eggnog inevitably led to problems. In 19th-century Baltimore, it was a custom for young men of the town to go from house to house on New Year’s Day, toasting their hosts in eggnog along the way. The challenge: to finish one’s rounds still standing.

The most famous eggnog debauch in American history, however, took place on Christmas Eve in 1826 at West Point Military Academy, in what came to be known as the Eggnog Riot. In that fatal year, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer was attempting to bring order to the floundering academy by instituting restrictive new rules, among these banning cooking in student rooms, outlawing duels, and forbidding the possession or consumption of alcohol.

He was not wholly successful. Protesting cadets, determined to have their holiday eggnog, smuggled in gallons of whiskey from local taverns. The post-party result was a drunken free-for-all. Windows, furniture, and crockery were smashed; banisters were torn from walls, fights broke out. One eggnog-addled cadet tried, but failed, to shoot his commanding officer.

In the sobering aftermath, nineteen cadets were expelled —but, with implications for America’s future, neither Jefferson Davis nor Robert E. Lee was expelled, both of whom were in attendance at the time.

Luckily, eggnog these days seldom leads to mayhem.

Instead it’s associated with friendship, conviviality, and mistletoe.