A toast to classic holiday drinks

The holidays have a unique drink – eggnog
A toast to classic holiday drinks

In one way or another, most holidays involve eating –going out to dinner on Valentine’s Day, barbecues on the Fourth of July and turkey and all the trimmings on Thanksgiving. But only The Holidays–that season roughly between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve–has its own unique drink: eggnog. It’s more a product of evolution than invention. Beverages combining eggs, milk and cream have a long history in many cultures. In medieval England, a popular drink called posset was made with hot milk curdled with wine or ale–similar to the dessert known today as syllabub. Depending on one’s means, spices or eggs were added. It soon became the traditional tipple for the British upper classes to toast to health and prosperity or any special occasion.

By the early 1700s, this potion was well-liked and widely dispensed throughout the colonies. After all, most Americans owned or lived near a farm–unlike in the old country–eggs and dairy products weren’t luxuries. On the other hand, sherry and Madeira–the customary spike–were, so cheap whiskey or rum became substitute ingredients.

By the 19th century, the drink now known as eggnog had established itself as a holiday tradition. So much so that in 1826, when a new teetotaling West Point commander tried to deny cadets their annual Christmas treat, the result was the Eggnog Riot that ended with 19 cadets being expelled.

Today, the standard recipe for eggnog includes sugar, milk, heavy cream, eggs and spirits (brandy, rum or bourbon, depending on the region of the country) with a garnish of nutmeg. There are many variations, however. In the South, the egg yolks are cooked with the milk and cream to form a thick custard called boiled custard. Especially cherished in New Orleans is milk punch, where the eggs are omitted altogether. All are served chilled. In Wisconsin, a hot version is the much-favored Tom & Jerry. Many credit Pierce Egan, a British journalist, for its curious name. In 1821, he wrote a novel, “The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq. and His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom,” and later used the book’s characters to name the concoction he supposedly contrived. Unlike eggnog, the Tom & Jerry contains not cream but rather boiling water added to the beaten egg, and sugar mixture–sometimes along with milk or butter. If you’ve never had one, the taste is akin to that of a frothy sugar cookie. The Tom & Jerry once rivaled eggnog as an American holiday ritual, but nowadays it’s rarely imbibed outside of Wisconsin or Minnesota–certainly the only places you’ll find frozen Tom & Jerry mix at the supermarket.

No matter how you feel about eggnog–and it certainly has its detractors who cannot fathom consuming a beverage containing raw eggs–it has never been more in demand. During the past 50 years, sales have quadrupled for the mass-produced product, pasteurized and packaged like milk. Still, it’s distributed only during the holiday season, and, like the season itself, it’s something fans anticipate every year. Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa this year, here’s to eggnog! Cheers!