Every year when eggnog makes its reappearance on grocery store shelves, I can’t help but wonder who in their right mind would buy and drink it. It’s never been my holiday beverage of choice — personally, I’m partial to a peppermint hot cocoa — but it’s clear that there are people out there who are obsessed with the creamy mixture of egg yolks, milk, and sugar. After all, over 130 million pounds of it are sold annually. Although I’m never inclined to drink it, its slightly tangy, creamy, and sweet flavor makes me wonder about its historical origins.

Eggnog’s Humble Beginnings

While eggnog’s exact lineage is unclear, the consensus among scholars is that it started out as a beverage called “posset,” a hot mixture of milk and beer or wine. Posset was a popular drink during the Medieval times, and monks were known to pair it with figs or eggs. As time progressed, posset became a drink exclusive to the upper class because of the high price of its ingredients in England during the 16th and 17th centuries.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that posset crossed the Atlantic, but it is believed that it made its way to the Americas sometime in the 18th century, most likely in tandem with British expansion in North America. As it migrated across the ocean, it also not only made its way to American soil, but also to Mexico and Puerto Rico with each nation adopting its own variation of the beverage. While the basic ingredients remained the same, in Mexico, posset transformed into “rompope.” with the addition of vanilla. In Puerto Rico, coconut milk was added to create “coquito.”

Another major change occurred when posset moved to the Americas: the addition of alcohols like rum and whiskey. In England, these liquors were expensive and hard to come by, so sherry wine was used or posset didn’t contain alcohol at all. But because of the colonies’ close proximity to the Caribbean, rum and whiskey were easily accessible.

American Traditions & The Eggnog Riot Of 1826

As its popularity rose in America, eggnog became increasingly associated with celebrations, and in particular, the holiday season. U.S. Presidents like George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower even had their own recipes for the beverage. Believe it or not, the drink caused a riot at West Point in an event that would come to be known as the Eggnog Riot of 1826. In 1817, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer was appointed superintendent of the United States Military Academy, and early in 1826, he implemented a policy banning alcohol from the campus.

Traditionally, the Academy held Christmas celebrations which included cadets indulging in eggnog, but Thayer’s new rules disrupted the long-held ritual. A group of cadets wanting to continue the tradition decided to smuggle liquor into West Point from taverns across the Hudson, and ultimately stored three to four gallons of whiskey in their rooms in the days leading up to the party on Christmas Eve.

Photo by Büşra Arabacı: on Pexels

The night of the party, things got out of hand quickly, with inebriated cadets starting fights, assaulting officers, and destroying Academy property. Two of the cadets involved in the revelry were none other than future President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis — a man known to have a slightly shady history when it came to alcohol — and his friend, future Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In the end, over 200 cadets were involved in the riot, but only 19 cadets were expelled from the Academy. I can’t see how eggnog was worth being expelled, but hey, to each their own!

The Modern Nog

Although eggnog hasn’t caused a riot in almost 200 years, crowds still flock to groceries stores every holiday season to get their nog on. Whole Foods alone carries at least four types of eggnog, ranging from the traditional cow's milk beverage to Holiday Nog coffee creamer. As Americans have become more health-conscious, consumption of cow's milk has been trending downward, so companies have had to adapt their products to keep customers interested. Brands like Whole Foods’ 365 make Almond Nog. Target's Good & Gather brand has an Oatmilk Holiday Nog option, too. 

Photo via Target

If you’re feeling particularly creative, you can craft your own variation of eggnog right in your own kitchen. You can check out celebrity chef Alton Brown and Ree Drummond's recipes, or go to your local grocery store, grab all of the ingredients, and experiment with a recipe of your own design.

Looking back on the history of eggnog, it’s clear that the beverage has come a long way from the posset of Medieval times. Instead of being exclusive to the wealthy, eggnog can now be enjoyed by anyone with access to a grocery store. You could even go crazy and make your own in the middle of the summer — months away from when it’s traditionally consumed around the holidays. This deeper dive into what makes eggnog eggnog has given me a new appreciation for all of the history packed into one little glass — but as the holiday season rolls around, I think I’ll still be keeping that glass at arm’s length.