Eggnog is a seasonal favorite bringing yuletide cheer

December is the time to sip and savor a seasonal favorite, eggnog.
Egg Nog in a glass with a cinnamon stick

Photo by Nikki Hansen

Eggnog is a seasonal flavor as much anticipated as s’mores in summer and pumpkin spice in fall. Its exact origin is a bit arcane, but as with so much of our culinary history, it’s probably British. Its roots are no doubt in the posset, an elixir enjoyed in the Middle Ages that was made from sweetened hot milk flavored with spices and ale or wine. Over time, eggs were added to the mix. Because of its then-expensive ingredients, the upper classes embraced the potion and often used it to toast good health and fortune. Even as its popularity slumped in the old country, American colonists took a shine to it. We know George Washington served an egg-type beverage to guests at Mount Vernon, and by the 19th century, eggnog was an established Yule treat.

In 1826, eggnog actually spawned a riot at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Earlier in the year, the superintendent had banned alcohol from campus, trying to prevent the mayhem that reigned annually at the Christmas party when cadets spiked the eggnog. The order was ignored, and on Dec. 24 and 25, 90 cadets, drunk on boozy eggnog, trashed the place. Nineteen of the worst offenders were court-martialed and 11 were expelled.

The recipe for this holiday punch has remained relatively the same for two centuries: raw eggs, sugar, milk, cream, nutmeg and booze. In colonial times, rum was favored since it was cheap, but today most recipes include brandy or whiskey. By the 1950s, bottled eggnog began appearing on market shelves. Large commercial dairies soon began making a pasteurized nonalcoholic version, but it really wasn’t until the 1960s that it took off.

As popular as the ready-made drink is now — sales have quadrupled in the past 50 years — you’ll find it only at the grocery store a few months each year, with demand peaking around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Oddly, the more frigid the weather, the better cold eggnog sells. Likewise, those who live in colder climates — the Midwest and Northeast — consume more cartons of the stuff than those who live in warmer ones.

In the South, boiled custard is much preferred to eggnog. It’s a misnomer since it is cooked, and if it were actually boiled it would curdle. Rich and smooth and similar to crème anglais (a French custard sauce), it’s served either warm or chilled, preferably with a shot of bourbon.

Homemade eggnog is glorious, but if you’re not up for cracking eggs, don’t worry. The Baerwolf family produces many top-notch products at its farmstead Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus, including eggnog. Organic Valley, a cooperative of organic farmers headquartered in La Farge, also makes a premium eggnog available seasonally at most supermarkets. In a Bon Appétit blind tasting of 14 store brands, Organic Valley’s ranked best for flavor.

For me, it’s OK that eggnog isn’t available year-round. Like the holidays, some things in life should be worth waiting for.

Dan Curd has written for Madison Magazine for more than 20 years.Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"