It was virgin eggnog that we kids drank on Christmas Eve around the sparkling Christmas tree with the flashing lights that my mother hated. But we sang carols and sipped thick, rich commercial eggnog – a mix of eggs, cream or milk and sugar – dusted with the bite of freshly ground nutmeg; and it was only much later that we came to appreciate the fine balance when the thick concoction is laced with the sting of booze. Whether your eggnog is spiked or un-, eggy or vegan, storebought or homemade, it is a perfect sinful indulgence for increasing festive feelings at holiday time.
In later years it became part of the evening when I trimmed the tree every year. Arguing over whether the tree was straight enough in the stand, hanging lights and ornaments were made even more Christmasy with Vienna Choirboys in the ear and rich nutmeg-dusted nog on the tongue. Later, my husband couldn’t tolerate the richness and we switched to mulled cider, and in recent years it is not even every year that I have eggnog at all. But one sip of the stuff and the holiday spirit increases exponentially; it has that kind of power.
The Granddaddy of eggnog was England’s posset, a hot drink made of sweetened milk with ale or sherry. By the American settlement by Europeans it became eggnog, and in 1607 Captain John Smith mentioned its presence in Jamestown, Virginia. Because of the expensive ingredients, it was for the upper classes for special occasions, or to fortify invalids. The whiskey or brandy with which it was traditionally spiked was heavily taxed, and was often replaced with rum, which was cheaper and readily available because of Caribbean trade routes. George Washington himself had a favorite recipe – easily found on today’s Internet – calling for cream, milk, sugar, brandy, whisky, rum and sherry.
After the Revolutionary War, whiskey or bourbon became more traditional for eggnog. In 1826 was West Point’s famous Eggnog Riot. Cadets were told that their Christmas eggnog would be virgin, so they made their own, had a raucous party and got busted, which resulted in a rowdy revolt leading to much mayhem, violence and the resignation of six cadets and the court-martialing of 19. Now the stuff is so entwined with Christmas traditions that you can get eggnog lattes, eggnog cheesecake or be light with Polar’s eggnog-flavored seltzer (I haven’t tried it and I don’t think I will).
Some people make their own secret recipes at home and serve them at raucous eggnog parties. I’ve never attended one of these, but I’ve heard tales… Actually I did go to a Puerto Rican one, where we drank a scrumptious version called coquito (little frog) made of coconut milk. Sometimes eggnog-makers made it way ahead of time and “cure” it for a lengthy period of time. Carlo DeVito of Hudson-Chatham Winery in Columbia County makes it with vanilla and local Tuthilltown Spirits’ Baby Bourbon. Some people make it more virtuous, with low-fat milk and more egg whites than yolks. Rhinebeck writer Terri Hall makes a healthy dairy-free version with soymilk, silken tofu, honey or brown rice syrup, vanilla and cold rum.
If you don’t want to make your own (in full disclosure, I haven’t yet, but mean to), you are left with commercial products, which vary in their quality. Ancramdale’s Ronnybrook Dairy Farm makes a popular handcrafted nog sold in its lovely classic glass bottle, named “Best of the Hudson Valley ” by Hudson Valley Magazine and lauded by New York Magazine and The New York Times.
If the raw eggs in eggnog scare you, bear in mind that the alcohol is said to kill anything lurking, and that if you stick to very fresh eggs from carefully raised chickens from a local farm like Gipperts’ Farm in Saugerties – and if you aren’t very young, old or ill – you should be okay. There are also ways to make eggnog that involve heating the eggs to avoid consuming them raw. But the heady rich brew with its froth mixed in can only be had the traditional way. Commercial products of course, are pasteurized.
So whether you stick to tradition or go for something more 21st-century, enjoy some eggnog this holiday season. Cheers, and Happy Holidays!