What Is Eggnog—and Why Do We Drink It at Christmas?

We asked a food historian for answers, then we spill our secrets for our best eggnog recipes.

White Chocolate Eggnog
Photo: Carson Downing

Depending on when you sipped on said drink, you and your ancestors may have known this silky beverage as “eggnog,” “egg nog” (two words), “egg-nogg” (double “g”), “milk punch,” or "flip," clarifies Beth Forrest, Ph.D., a food historian and professor of liberal arts and food studies at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. (By the way, a “flip” is a mixology term used to this day. This refers to a category of cocktails made with liquor, sugar, and eggs that are shaken or mixed until foamy.)

“In an 1883 issue of The Magazine of American History, the editors wrote that it was in Virginia manor houses where the ‘great Christmas beverage, eggnog’ was invented—replacing wassail. They reported that it was served in a ‘huge silver vessel’ and ‘was one of the distinctive features of the season, as remains, and deserves all the praise that has been accorded to it as a beverage,’” Forrest says.

While that late-1800s mention was likely among the first recorded instances of eggnog appearing on holiday menus, it probably wasn’t the first time eggnog recipes were made. Like so many other foods and drinks, it’s nearly impossible to say who—and exactly when—eggnog was first made and consumed, Forrest admits.

“The prevailing theory is that it descended from medieval Europe and posset. Posset is a beer or wine punch enriched with eggs, milk or cream, with warming spices added to later on,” Forrest says. “It was drunk by monks, at weddings, or before bedtime. In her bestselling 1784 cookbook The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse has several recipes for posset.”

One of these possets is made with sack (aka port), eggs, sugar, milk, and nutmeg; and the finished product is strikingly similar to modern day eggnog recipes. (Psst…Ina Garten shared her signature posset recipe with us if you want to give her Modern Comfort Food recipe a shot!)

By 1815, eggnog was associated with Christmas in the newly-formed United States, Forrest explains. One news correspondent from England wrote that in a meeting with a secretary from President James Madison’s cabinet, they were served “a liquor with which the Americans used to treat their friends on Christmas Day…called egg-nog.” 

We couldn’t resist asking Forrest what is the nog in eggnog? While the exact origin is fuzzy, it might refer to “noggin,” a term for a small wooden cup or mug that dates back to the middle ages.

As far as what liquor is in eggnog at this time, “in colonial America it would have been made with rum rather than brandy, whiskey, or port. Yet, it was also quite common to serve it along with mint juleps, to sip it during lunch, in the spring, and during election periods too. It was only more recently, by the mid-20th century, when eggnog became relegated to the holiday season,” Forrest says, perhaps due to the rich nature and warm baking spices.

While many may now think of eggnog as a seasonal indulgence, in the nineteenth century and through the first half of the twentieth century, it appears in many medical books as a nutritive tonic for ailments and was often served to patients and soldiers in recovery as well, Forrest admits.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the history of eggnog, but “as long as you toast with your companions ‘to good health’ at Christmas, you would be staying true to the roots of the drink,” Forrest says.

Cold Refreshing Eggnog Drink for the Holidays
bhofack2/Getty Images

 What is Eggnog, Exactly?

It looks a lot like a mug of milk, but what is eggnog made of? It’s an emulsion of eggs, whole milk and/or cream, sugar, and a mix of spices. Eggnog is often served cold, but can be enjoyed warm; the latter option is especially cozy after a brisk day of holiday shopping, sledding, ice skating, or snowman-assembly. Some choose to add alcohol (more on this below), and warm spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves are common.

Eggnog recipes are creamy and custard-like in consistency, with a sweet and warmly-spiced flavor. The texture is more similar to a mug of melted vanilla ice cream or frozen custard than a glass of milk. Since this holiday drink is very rich, a little bit goes a long way. Most of our eggnog recipes below yield about 1-cup servings.

Is Eggnog Safe to Drink?

If your food safety alarms are buzzing after seeing raw eggs called for in this mix, we get it. Consuming raw eggs is not recommended for anyone with a compromised immune system, such as the elderly, young kids, and anyone undergoing immunotherapy. For otherwise healthy populations, the risk for foodborne illness from salmonella is minimal. That said, any time you plan to consume raw or undercooked eggs, the FDA recommends opting for pasteurized eggs or egg products.

How Do You Make Eggnog?

The first step to make eggnog is to separate the eggs into whites and yolks. Whip the whites into stiff peaks. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks with sugar and salt until the mixture lightens in color and texture. 

In a saucepan over medium—being careful not to allow this to boil—add milk, half-and-half, and/or cream. Once this comes to a simmer, gradually add a ladle-full of the warm milk blend to the egg yolk mixture. Whisk constantly, and once the egg yolks are fully combined with the dairy (this step prevents the eggs from curdling in the hot milk), add the dairy-stoked eggs to the saucepan and whisk continuously until the eggnog is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Reduce heat to low, add warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and/or cloves. Lastly, gently stir in the whipped egg whites. Garnish with a dash of cinnamon, cocoa powder, or pumpkin pie spice if desired, and enjoy.

Alcohol-Free Eggnog

Nearly every eggnog recipe starts out spirit-free, then gets spiked with booze before serving. Our recipes for Pumpkin Eggnog, White Chocolate Eggnog, Cappuccino Eggnog, and Peppermint-Eggnog Punch show how it’s done.

If you’d like to mimic the flavor of a spirit in your eggnog, try adding a splash of extract. Technically flavored extracts contain a small amount of alcohol (see our vanilla extract guide for more details about why), so if it’s important to totally steer clear, just skip this step. Otherwise, we adore infusing alcohol-free eggnog with one of the following: 

  • Vanilla extract
  • Rum extract
  • Almond extract 
  • Maple extract
  • Coffee extract

Optional Liquors and Liqueurs You Can Add to Eggnog

What alcohol is in eggnog? The only limit is your imagination—and your bar cart stock. Based on our taste tests, nearly any liquor besides tequila or mezcal works well to spike eggnog. Brandy, sherry, rum, bourbon, cognac, and Madeira are classic choices. We also adore Irish whiskey (as featured in our Dublin Eggnog) and coffee liqueur (which you can try in this Cafe Rompope, or Mexican Coffee Eggnog). Feel free to mix more than one, like we do with rum and bourbon in this classic Eggnog recipe.

When we share eggnog at a holiday party, we like to make alcohol-free eggnog by the batch, then set out an array of any or all of the liquors and liqueurs below so the 21+ guests can mix if interested. 

  • Applejack brandy
  • Brandy
  • Bourbon
  • Coffee liqueur
  • Cognac
  • Crème de cacao
  • Frangelico
  • Rum
  • Rye
  • Scotch
  • Sherry
  • Spiced Rum
  • Peppermint schnapps or liqueur
  • White chocolate liqueur
Spiced Eggnog Pancakes
Andy Lyons

The Best Eggnog Recipes For Foods Infused With the Holiday Drink

If you prefer to eat your eggnog, our Test Kitchen pros have perfected plenty of ways to do just that. For breakfast, try Spiced Eggnog Pancakes or Eggnog Muffins alongside your coffee or tea. After whipping up sugar cookie cutouts, gingerbread, and your family’s other seasonal favorites, round out your Christmas cookie platter with Eggnog-Frosted Nutmeg Sugar Cookies, Eggnog-Nut Thumbprints, Macadamia Bars with Eggnog Drizzle, Eggnog Kringla, or Nutty Eggnog Bars. Or if cakes and pies are more your style, consider Eggnog and Rum Fudge Pie, Rum and Eggnog Cakes, Eggnog Cheesecake with Candied Kumquats, or Eggnog Tiramisu.

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