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Eggnog’s history features a wild recipe from Washington and a riot

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Offer your guests eggnog at your next holiday shindig, and some might feel more inclined to tell you to go suck an egg.

It’s no secret that eggnog — a drink made from milk, eggs, sugar, and sometimes spirits and typically consumed around the holidays in the United States—  is a festive albeit controversial choice. Just look at the headlines from haters and eggnog-heads alike: “Eggnog Is Gross and You Cannot Make Me Like It“; “Is Eggnog Delicious Or Disgusting?“; “How to Spike Your Holiday Eggnog So It’s Not Gross For Once“; “In Praise of Eggnog, Which Is Good.”

But how did downing a boozy egg-and-milk concoction during the holidays even become a thing in the first place?

Well, we have medieval folks, George Washington, and 19th century healthcare providers looking to cure influenza to thank, in part, for keeping the beverage flowing throughout the centuries.

The drink’s predecessor was likely posset, a spiced blend of curdled milk and wine or ale favored in the medieval ages. Time reported that food historians believe that posset originated in England.

Once the recipe made the jump across the Atlantic, colonists and later citizens of the United States began adding eggs to the mix. But for centuries, the drink was less of a holiday staple and more of a utilitarian option. In “Sweet Taste of History: More than 100 Elegant Dessert Recipes from America’s Earliest Days,” author Walter Staib describes eggnog as “more akin to a protein shake to eighteenth-century travelers,” providing a nutritional boost to colonists on the go.

And eggnog’s health benefits were believed to go beyond just nourishment. According to an 1892 medical publication, the drink was also believed to be helpful in treating “la grippe,” or influenza.

The Eggnog Riot

Over the years, eggnog increasingly became a beverage to trot out for celebratory — and boozy — gatherings.

In “Rum: The Epic Story Of The Drink That Conquered The World” author Charles A. Coulombe writes that George Washington liked to really spike his eggnog, having formulated a recipe that called for copious amounts of “rye whiskey, rum, and sherry.”

By the 1800s, it would appear that the drink took on a clearer holiday vibe, becoming a drink of choice at Christmas celebrations. One such eggnog-fueled party — an incident that serves as a clear indicator of the beverage’s new festive status — has gone down in history as a turning point for the United States Military Academy at West Point, of all places.

In their book “The United States of Absurdity: Untold Stories from American History,” Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds write that the school’s “Eggnog Riot” began on Christmas Eve in 1826. West Point’s tradition of allowing cadets to drink on certain holidays had been abolished, thanks to previous drunken shenanigans. But that Christmas, a group of cadets conspired to purchase eggnog ingredients from Benny Haven’s Tavern.

The night spun out of control from there. Intoxicated cadets knocked out a patrolling professor, fired muskets, and plummeted from windows. 

Of the 250 cadets enrolled in the school, 70 were implicated in the riot. President John Quincy Adams would later visit West Point to scold cadets, saying that the country “had a right to expect better things” from them, according to “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters” author Elizabeth Brown Pryor.

A group of the instigators would go on help rip the United States apart decades years later during the US Civil War, including Confederate generals Benjamin G. Humphreys and Hugh Mercer, ex-Supreme Court justice John Archibald Campbell, and future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who escaped serious punishment because he “stepped into his room to vomit at a fortuitous moment.”  

Eggnog took on a less wild reputation in the 1960s when, according to Forbes, a cold and booze-free version of the drink became popular.

So while any form of eggnog might be a contentious drink to crack open at your holiday fete, you can avoid the mayhem of the Eggnog Riot by serving the tamer, modern variety.

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