Holiday cheer: a bit of history about eggnog

Here we are, a few days from the winter solstice, getting near the close of the year, and in the midst of the holiday season.  I have always loved the winter, and having the excuse of the holidays to spend some quality time with my family and friends.  Recently, at a holiday party and in various conversations, the topic of what is probably the most iconic of holiday libations, eggnog, has come up a few times.  Questions of what spirit to use, homemade versus store-bought, and how to enjoy this creamy punch without making a punchbowl’s worth, all have come up, and with some decidedly varied opinions.  So, what better than to weigh in with my opinions here, for all to see.

I have a great fondness for a good cup of eggnog, though that’s often hard to come by in my experience.  While it may not be a drink for everyone, I think that more people would enjoy this drink that dates back to the mid 18th century if they were exposed to a good, homemade batch, and steered clear of the gloopy store-bought premade varieties.

If nothing else, I hope that this post gets more people to put down the carton or plastic jug of mass produced concoctions that start flooding the grocery store shelves this time of year.  Making a delicious, quality eggnog doesn’t have to be daunting.  Whether you’re making a big batch for a party, or want to enjoy a single cup at home by the fire on your own, let’s look at a bit of the history of this wonderful drink, and talk about the ingredients, and the debate surrounding some of them.

First thing first, let’s start the discussion of ingredients.  While there are many different recipes, the one constant in any true eggnog is the namesake egg.  I’ve encountered a number of people over the years that have ranged from the mildly distressed to actively disgusted by the notion of drinking cocktails made with egg.  Yes, consuming raw eggs can pose some risks of illness, but if prepared properly, this can be minimized, and there are some truly astoundingly good drinks that simply couldn’t exist without raw egg, eggnog being the chief amongst them in my opinion.  If you like, pasteurized eggs are quite readily available in most stores these days, and pose a diminished risk of contracting food-borne illnesses.  Whether you go with pasteurized eggs or not, this is one ingredient that you really can’t skip or substitute for another.  Quite simply, you can’t have eggnog without egg; it’s responsible for the all important texture of the drink, the rich mouth feel, and of course the taste.

The next ingredient is more contentious, with opinions varying on what to use; dairy.  All eggnogs use some sort of dairy, whether it be milk, half and half, or heavy cream.  While there are modern recipe options that replace the dairy with an alternative such as soy or almond milk, traditional eggnog makes use of either milk or cream.  When it comes to the choice of dairy product, I prefer using heavy cream, for its richness and the fullness it adds to the texture of the drink.  Historically, there are references to both milk and cream being used in various recipes, with cream being more prevalent in British recipes, and milk being a bit more common in American recipes.  Both have their place, and generally speaking the proportions will remain the same, but will result in thinner or creamier versions of eggnog; it really is a matter of personal preference.

The third ingredient, which is universal, it seems, is the inclusion of sugar.  Whether in the form of simple syrup or crystalized sugar, the addition of a sweetening agent is key to making a proper eggnog, in my opinion.  I typically like using simple syrup, because I prefer a smoother texture over what can be a somewhat grainy texture gained from using sugar crystals.  That said, simple syrup does add a bit of extra liquid content, though not a very appreciable amount.  To account for this, I will often use double strength simple syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water, combined into a solution over heat and then cooled) though that is not necessary if you don’t want to make a special batch of simple syrup just for your eggnog.  If you decide to use crystalized sugar, I strongly encourage you to use “super fine” or castor sugar.  While you can buy castor sugar, if you have a food processor it’s incredibly simple and more cost effective to make your own.  Simply take regular white sugar, and blitz it in your food processor for a couple of minutes, either continually or on pulse.  Make sure to cover your food processor with a tea towel or the like to help avoid extra cleanup, as the fine, dust-like particles are more likely to escape during the process.  By using this very fine sugar, it will both more easily integrate into the liquid components of your drink, and help reduce the gritty texture you would get from using normal white crystalized sugar.

Now, we get into the meat of things, so to speak, and the most debated part of eggnog recipes; the spirit.  In the world of eggnog, there are three major contenders for the spirit of choice; rum, bourbon, and brandy.  Some people swear that it’s not really eggnog unless you use a specific type of spirit, while others couldn’t care less it seems.  A lot of it comes down to traditions, and personal flavor preferences these days, so go with what you enjoy.  Historically, brandy is the spirit of choice in the earliest recipes of drinks that we would now call eggnog, and is my personal favorite, though it may be said I’m rather fond of brandy, and advocate it finding a more prominent place in our bars.  Brandy was the spirit of choice in 18th century Britain when it came to making the precursors to eggnog in the homes of the aristocracy, though at times it was replaced with fortified wines line Madeira or sherry.  Rum came to be the spirit of choice on this side of the Atlantic in the colonies, largely due to matters of taxation and economics.  Brandy and wines were both heavily taxed in colonial America, and rum was cheap and readily accessible due to the Caribbean trade, so that cane spirit came to replace brandy as the spirit of choice in the colonies.  As time went on, and America fought for independence from Great Britain, rum became harder to come by, and so the forefathers of America turned to the locally produced whiskey, particularly bourbon, when making eggnog.

As you can see, all of the three major spirits used in modern eggnog recipes are perfectly valid, historically speaking.  Again, it really comes down to a matter of your personal preferences of taste when you choose what spirit to use in your eggnog.  As I mentioned earlier, a number of people I have spoken with think of eggnog as always using a particular spirit, because that’s been the tradition in their family.  I think that family tradition is just as good of a reason to choose your spirit as looking at the history of the drink, and what was first used.

The last of the ingredients is another topic with varied opinions; the garnish / additional flavors. Most often, you’ll see eggnog topped off with a dusting of nutmeg, which to me is essential.  However, nearly as often, you may see a dash of ground cinnamon added instead, or along with the nutmeg.  Some incorporate these dried spices into the drink itself in the making instead of adding it as a sprinkled garnish to the finished drink.  Vanilla is not an uncommon flavoring, whether via an extract, or freshly scraped from vanilla beans.  As I said, my personal preference is for a pinch of finely grated fresh nutmeg, and nutmeg alone, added as a garnish, but all of these options are perfectly viable, alone or in some combination, and all have historical merit when looking at early recipes.  I find that cinnamon goes better with bourbon based eggnogs, and vanilla pairs with rum and bourbon a bit better than brandy, but it’s just a matter of personal preference, when you get down to it.

So, now that we’ve talked a bit about the history, and addressed ingredient options, we just have the actual recipes left.  For that, you’ll have to wait just a little bit longer, but don’t worry you won’t have to wait too much longer.  Stay tuned for a recipe (or two) to come your way tomorrow, here at Experiments From The Bar!

Note: while I am not a fan of store-bought pseudo eggnog myself, for what is shaping up to be an amusing (and some might even say insightful) look at various eggnog related products, check out my friend’s current series of posts; Eggnog Week at Kotas Reviews Everything
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