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Eggnog – Origins, History, and How it Caused a Riot



Christmas is just over a week away and so; it is time once again to think about “Christmas traditions.” One of those traditions associated with the holiday is eggnog. Eggnog is a drink that stirs up memories for most people, and they either love it or hate it - there is seldom a middle ground. It’s not difficult to understand why some folks are wary of the rich and creamy holiday drink with its combination of raw eggs, milk, and sugar. The thing is those are the same basic ingredients that you find in unfrozen ice cream base. So, why do so many people dislike eggnog? Well, we can’t answer that question here, but we can look at the origins and history of this drink


In the beginning there was posset

Possets were widely consumed in seventeenth-century England and considered both medicine and food. Usually a mix of heated cream, alcohol, and spices, possets were designed to sooth the stomach, promote good digestion, and aid in sleep. The Old English Dictionary traces the word to the 15th century.

A Sack Posset Recipe from the Early 1600s
A Sack Posset Recipe from the Early 1600s

A manuscript cookbook by Elizabeth Hawar from around 1687 has a recipe entitled “How to make a London Possett”. In Hawar’s “London Possett” recipe, the mixture of cream and eggs form a sort of “cheese curds” that float on top of the flavored, spiced, sack. The recipe, as written, is as follows:


"Take a pint of sack & 12 eggs, beat them very well both whites & yolkes, then strain them & put the sack & eggs togather, & sweeten it with sugar & Nutmegg as you please, & sett it ouer the fire keeping it stirring till it be scalding hot then take it of the fire & put in a quart of Creame boyling hott, holding your hand as high as you can in the pouring of it, then give it a stir & couer it close with a plate, & let it alone till it be like Cheese, & if it shoud not come set it on a gentle fire till it begins to Corn."

A Sack Posset
A Sack Posset

Here is an updated “modern” version of the recipe, halved from the original:


1/2 cup sherry

3 eggs

1 tablespoon sugar

1/8 tablespoon nutmeg, freshly grated

1 cup cream


  • Beat the eggs together. Add sack, sugar, and nutmeg to the eggs.

  • Pour this mixture into a medium size pot. Gently heat to body temperature. Do not allow the eggs to cook.

  • In a separate, smaller pot, boil the cream.

  • Pour the cream into the egg and sack mixture from a high height.

  • Cover the posset with a lid and let it cool. A cheesy layer of eggs and cream should form on the top.

Elizabeth Raffald
Elizabeth Raffald

By the time we reach the mid-18th century, possets have changed; they are made from milk, rather than cream, but now are thickened with biscuits, bread, egg yolks or almonds, or a combination thereof. Sack possets seem to still be the most popular, but lemon possets make an appearance. Sack possets were drunk at weddings when it came to toasting the bride and groom. Elizabeth Raffald, in her 1769 cookbook “The Experienced English Housekeeper” has the following recipe:


“Grate two Naples biscuits into a pint of thin cream, put in a stick of cinnamon and set it over a slow fire. Boil it till it is of a proper thickness, then add half a pint of sack, a slice of the end of a lemon, with sugar to your taste. Stir it gently over the fire, but don’t let it boil lest it curdle. Serve it up with dry toast.”


Mrs. Raffald also highlights the fact that if you don’t want your posset to curdle you should always mix a little of the hot cream or milk with your wine and it will keep the wine from curdling the rest.


Eggnog arrives on the scene in America

If you believe the internet, eggnog was both an American invention and first consumed at Jamestown in 1607, the first successful settlement on mainland North America. This would make Captain John Smith, the leader of the colony, one of the first American mixologists. This is precisely why you should not trust the internet. Though Captain Smith may have consumed egg drinks at Jamestown, they certainly would not have been the eggnog that we know today. Smith was severely injured in a gunpowder explosion in 1609 and returned to England, never to return to Jamestown. According to writings from the period, the first cattle did not arrive at Jamestown until August 1, 1611.

Captain John Smith
Captain John Smith

The Online Etymology Dictionary states that the term "eggnog" is an American term consisting of the words "egg" and "nog", with "nog" meaning "strong ale." When American colonists began drinking it, they started adding rum, which wasn't heavily taxed in the way that brandy and wine was, was easily accessible, since it was traded in the Caribbean. But any liquor became fair game with whiskey becoming the second preference over time. In his 1759 book, “Description of the Former and Present Condition of the Swedish Churches in What was Called New Sweden,” Israel Acrelius produces a list of “drinks used in North America” which includes “eggnog” as well as “egg punch.”

Another example of the use of the term "eggnog" was in 1775, when Maryland clergyman and philologist Jonathan Boucher authored a poem about the drink which was not published until 30 years after his death in 1804. The first printed use of the term appeared in the New-Jersey Journal of March 26, 1788, which referred to a young man drinking a glass of eggnog. Later in that same year, Philadelphia’s Independent Gazetteer offered some dietary advice about eggnog still relevant today. It reportedly said, “When wine and beer, punch and eggnog meet, instantly ensues a quarrel.” While this quote was most likely referring to indigestion, a bar quarrel would not be out of the question either.


In the January 26 Issue of the Virginia Chronicle (Norfolk) we find the following mention of drinking eggnog:


“Messrs. Baxter & Wilson, (the publishers – ed)

On last Christmas Eve several gentlemen met at Northampton court-house, and spent the evening in mirth and festivity, when EGG-NOG was the principal Liquor used by the company. After they had indulged pretty freely in this beverage, a gentleman in company offered a bet that not one of the party could write four verses, extempore, which should be rhyme and sense; and when it was taken up by a gentleman present, who wrote the first five verses following; to which the subjoined answer was immediately given. As I think them applicable to the occasion, you will oblige me by inserting them in your next week's paper.”


Isaac Weld, Jr., in his book Travels Through the States of North America and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, during the years 1795, 1796, and 1797 (published in 1800) wrote:


"Several travellers had stopped at the same house that I did the first night I was on the road, and we all breakfasted together preparatory to setting out the next morning. The American travellers, before they pursued their journey, took a hearty draught each, according to custom, of egg-nog, a mixture composed of new milk, eggs, rum, and sugar, beat up together; …"


According to the internet, George Washington had his own recipe for the drink, and it was heavy on alcohol. The thing is, as with many things one finds on the internet, it just isn’t true. According to research historian Mary Thompson at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, there are no references in Washington’s papers to the use of eggnog. In fact, the only recipe found in the president’s papers was one for “small beer.


By the time we get to the 1800s, several generations had grown up drinking eggnog. It had gone from a wintertime drink to a treat that was part of the Christmas tradition. And this is what brings us to what is known as the Eggnog Riot of 1826.


The Eggnog Riot of 1826 took place in West Point, New York, at the United States Military Academy on December 24 and December 25, 1826. December 25, 1826, at West Point was not a typical Christmas morning. Cadets stumbled from their barracks, clothes torn or askew. Many were barefoot, cursing, and still drunk from the night before. Behind the cadets, West Point's North Barracks stood in a state of near ruin. Windows had been smashed, along with the building's furniture. Banisters had been ripped from stairways, thrown down with other rubble. Shards of shattered plates, dishes and cups lined the ground. After looking at the hungover and drunk cadets, the officer of the day dismissed the corps. It had been a long night for everyone, and all caused by eggnog!

Earlier that year, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, the academy's strict superintendent, had expressly forbidden the purchase, storage, or consumption alcohol at West Point, a move that reflected the bold discipline Thayer brought to West Point. Before Thayer became superintendent in 1817, West Point hardly resembled the esteemed military academy of modern times. When it first opened its doors in 1802, it was nothing more than a few ramshackle buildings with ten cadets taught by three teachers. Students were admitted at any point during the year, and admissions standards were laughable. All this began to change after the War of 1812, when America's military failings inspired Congress to spend more money on the school. They instated Thayer as superintendent, hoping he would bring order to the derelict academy.


Eggnog was a traditional part of West Point's annual Christmas celebration, but Thayer's moratorium on alcohol threw a wrench in the festivities. Not to be denied a night of revelry, some cadets set about smuggling in liquor from nearby taverns for the holiday party to the tune of four gallons of whiskey. The cadets hid the whiskey among their personal things and waited for Christmas Eve.


Thayer had assigned two regular officers to oversee the north barracks that night, Captain Hitchcock and Lieutenant Thorton. When the two officers went to bed around midnight, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. However, four hours later, Captain Hitchcock woke to the sounds of a rowdy party a few floors above him. When he crashed the party, demanding that the drunken cadets return to their rooms, angry words were exchanged. After Hitchcock left, one of the cadets shouted to the others:


“Get your dirks and bayonets. . . and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead!”


Thorton, in his own attempt to break up gatherings, had a cadet threaten him with his sword--another cadet hit Thorton with a piece of wood, knocking him down. Things weren't going much better for Hitchcock. After leaving the one room, Hitchcock heard a larger commotion coming from the floors below. As he tried to break down a barricaded door, a cadet pulled a pistol out, trying to shoot him. Luckily, another cadet jostled him as he shot, sending the bullet harmlessly into the door jamb, but the encounter was enough to convince Hitchcock that he needed some backup.

Rumors quickly spread throughout the barracks that Hitchcock was summoning the regulars from the artillery detachment stationed at West Point. Cadets in the North Barracks began taking up arms to defend the building from the artillery men. Violence within the barracks escalated, as cadets smashed crockery and windows and broke furniture. The regulars never came, and slowly but surely, the drunken mob began to sober up. Eventually, the Commandant of Cadets arrived on the scene and his authority was enough to put the Eggnog Riot to rest for good.

Cadet Jefferson Davis Managed to Avoid Prosecution for the Riot
Cadet Jefferson Davis Managed to Avoid Prosecution for the Riot

It was quite a night with two officers assaulted, windows in the North Barracks broken, banisters torn from the stairways and plates, dishes and cups smashed into little pieces. Out of around 260 cadets, as many as 90 could have been indicted for actions during the night's events. Instead of indicting all of them, which would have reflected poorly on the academy by reenforcing its image of an anarchic place, Thayer chose to deal with only the most aggressive offenders, expelling nineteen cadets.


Despite the destructive impacts of the riots, their story is largely unknown, especially to current West Point staff and students. According to the command historian at West Point, if one polled the 4,400 cadets, 3,000 federal employees, and 1,500 military staff and faculty, it is doubtful that thirty people will know anything about it.


In the December 15, 1827, issue of the London Literary Gazette, an article about American Steamboats reports that:


“in every Yankee steamboat there is a bar, like that on a public house, at which passengers call for refreshments between regular meals. The beverages most in demand at these bars are termed Gin cock-tail, gin, rum or brandy sling, mint julep, egg nog, milk toddy, and wine or porter sangaree.”


In Maryland, and Baltimore, it was a tradition, dating back to at least the 1830s, that a tub of eggnog was set out for 12 days - from Christmas until Twelfth night (January 6) - for visitors. All the well-to-do people kept eggnog and plum-cake standing in their parlors till Twelfth-night was over; and Catholics of the middle class always set out a tub of eggnog on their porch as they often had no time nor room for their guests within doors. A bucket of clean water stood nearby, and when finished, the mug was rinsed in the water and wiped with a clean cloth. The following is a recipe from Maryland that comes from somewhere in the period 1829 – 1849:


“Beat the yolks of twelve eggs, and the whites of two as light as possible. Allow an even tablespoonful of pounded sugar to each egg, pour slowly into the above one pint of brandy, and a quarter of a pint of peach brandy, stirring rapidly. When well mixed, add three pints of new milk, and four pints of cream. No liquor must be added after the cream and milk, or the egg nogg will be thin and poor. The peach brandy may be omitted, if desired.” – Note: this recipe makes 30-36 cups.


A Modern Version of a Historic Recipe New Year’s Recipe

In the city of Baltimore, it was a tradition for young gents to call upon all their friends on New Year’s Day. At each home they would toast the day with a cup of eggnog: a round of drinks that—depending on the size of one's social network—could be particularly difficult to finish.

A Bowl of Eggnog for Visitors
A Bowl of Eggnog for Visitors

This recipe, for a Baltimore Eggnog, employs an interesting and unexpected family of spirits: madeira, brandy, and dark rum. The caramelly dark rum, nutty brandy, fruity wine, and spicy nutmeg combine to liven up the luxurious dairy.


Baltimore Eggnog

Ingredients

1 whole egg or egg white

2 oz whole milk

2 oz half and half

1 oz madeira or sherry

½ oz brandy

½ oz dark rum

⅓ oz simple syrup

nutmeg for garnish

Instructions

  • Combine all ingredients with ice and shake

  • Strain into a glass or mug

  • Garnish with a pinch of nutmeg

We hope you enjoyed today’s post on the origins and history of eggnog. We hope this article inspires you to experiment and perhaps to include some of the traditions of Colonial America and the Early Republic as a part of your own family’s holiday traditions.


All of us here at the Norfolk Towne Assembly wish Happy Holidays to all our friends and readers and pray that you and your family can find time to experience a season of relaxation, joy, and peace. Here at the Norfolk Towne Assembly, we are going to take the next couple of weeks off so that we can spend the holidays with our families rather than on research. Please join us again when we return to posting on this blog in early January.


While you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects - military, political, and civilian.


Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


References

Acrelius, I. (1759). Description of the Former and Present Condition of the Swedish Churches in What was Called New Sweden. Stockholm: Harberg & Hasselberg.


Anonymous. (1827, December 15). American Steam Boats. The London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c., p. 13.


Bowling, G. A. (1942, February). The Introduction of Cattle into Colonial North America. Journal of Dairy Science, 25(2), 129-154.


Buttery, N. (2012, April 28). Possets. Retrieved from British Food: A History: https://britishfoodhistory.com/2012/04/28/possets/


Digby, S. K. (1671). The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Kt. Opened. London: H. Brome.


Geiling, N. (2013, December 19). Eggnog: It's All Fun and Games Until Someone Starts a Holiday Riot. Retrieved from Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/egg-nog-its-all-fun-and-games-until-someone-starts-a-holiday-riot-180949281/


Howard, M. B. (1881). Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.


Nicosia, M. (2021, July 26). How to make a London Possett. Retrieved from Cooking in the Archives: https://rarecooking.com/2021/07/26/how-to-make-a-london-possett/


Raffald, E. (1769). The Experienced English Housekeeper. Manchester, UK: J. Harrep.


Reber, P. B. (2021, December 26). Egg Nog - setting the story straight. Retrieved from Researching Food History: http://researchingfoodhistory.blogspot.com/2020/02/george-washington-did-not-write-recipe.html


Weld, I. (1807). Travels Through the States of North America and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, during the years 1795, 1796, and 1797 (Vol. 1). London: J. Stockdale.

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