It’s that time of year again, when streets are lined with twinkling lights and supermarket shelves are stacked with brightly decorated cartons of eggnog. How eggnog landed on supermarket shelves, synonymous with the winter holidays, is a story as rich as the creamy, spiced, egg-laden drink itself. While eggnog’s roots are in Europe, American history is to thank for the drink we know and love today.
Eggnog’s Early Origins
The origin of eggnog is difficult to pinpoint, but most culinary historians believe its earliest traceable relative is a hot and heady concoction called posset, which was imbibed in early modern Britain. Sasha Handley, a professor of early modern history at The University of Manchester, writes that posset had medicinal uses and was also the “culinary pinnacle of 17th-century wedding celebrations,” enjoyed by bride, groom and wedding guests to cement the bonds of a new marriage.
At an early modern English wedding, the bride’s family might prepare posset using heated milk or cream, spices like cinnamon or nutmeg and various alcohols, most often ale or a sweetened white wine called sack.
Eggnog in Early America
The English’s beloved posset and the traditions surrounding it traveled across the Atlantic with settlers in the 17th century. Intricately-designed pots dating to the mid-17th and early-18th centuries designed for serving posset have been discovered at archeological dig sites in New England. But while the drinkware may have endured for a time, traditions and recipes quickly changed in the New World. On North American soil, settlers adapted old recipes to utilize the abundance of colonial-era farms, where milk and eggs were plentiful.
“It originated in the household as a way of preserving food,” says Clinton Lanier, author of the forthcoming book Ted Mack and America’s First Black-Owned Brewery. When eggs and dairy neared the end of their shelf life, in an era before widespread refrigeration, mixing them with sugar and alcohol kept them from spoiling. Lanier says the drink would have also been available all year long at inns or taverns throughout the colonies. Most historians agree it was also during this period that eggnog got its name—a mixture of the words “egg” and “grog,” the latter a term American colonists used for rum or sometimes other alcohol.