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Eggnog once sparked a military riot: Here’s the story and 3 other facts about the holiday drink

Eggnog (Steenaire/Flickr)
December 25, 2019

With Christmas upon us, time to pour a tall glass of eggnog.

Divisive in some families, eggnog is a popular holiday drink made from cream or milk and eggs, sometimes mixed with alcohol.

In fact, the first eggnog recipes included alcohol, said Fred Opie, a history and foodways professor at Babson College in Massachusetts.

Opie said the drink has always been associated with holidays because it is made with special ingredients including nutmeg and other spices.

Here are 4 things you may not have known about eggnog:

Why is it called eggnog?

The exact origin of “eggnog” is disputed among historians. A posset, a warm drink consisting of milk curdled with wine or ale, dates back to the 15th century, according to Merriam Webster.

According to the dictionary, the first known use of eggnog, defined as “a drink consisting of eggs beaten with sugar, milk or cream, and often alcoholic liquor,” came around 1775.

Opie told USA TODAY the drink “evolved out of tavern culture in England” and is tied to the U.S.’s culinary and colonial history.

Ben Zimmer, a linguist and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, wrote in a 2009 blog post that a clergyman and philologist in Maryland, Jonathan Boucher, wrote a poem that mentions eggnog around 1775. Zimmer cites other examples from late eighteenth century North America with some of the first documented uses of “eggnog.”

The origin of the “egg” part of the name is intuitive, Zimmer explains, but the “nog” has not been confirmed.

A “noggin” was a small cup or mug, per Merriam Webster. “Nugg” or “nugged ale” was a Scottish term for an ale warmed with a hot poker, Zimmer writes.

According to Opie, colonists called rum “grog,” which was served in noggins. “Thus the drink eventually became egg-n-grog and over time eggnog,” Opie writes in his food blog.

Eggnog was a money maker for taverns

Making eggnog has been fairly cheap process throughout history, Opie says. The use of cinnamon and nutmeg, which were expensive ingredients but used sparingly, signaled that it was intended to be a drink for the wealthy. As a result, taverns could mark up the price, making the drink more profitable, Opie said.

“People who make a great eggnog, they could draw a crowd and make a lot of money,” he said.

One of those eggnog experts was Cato Alexander.

Alexander was born enslaved and, after he was freed, opened a tavern in New York City, according to Opie. The tavern was famous and known for, among other cocktail creations, Alexander’s eggnog, Opie said.

Did George Washington have his own eggnog recipe?

In articles by TIMEPBS and National Geographic, the first president is credited with having his own recipe of eggnog that he would have made at Mount Vernon.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the recipe incorporated four types of alcohol:

“One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, ½ pint rye whiskey, ½ pint Jamaica rum, ¼ pint sherry – mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 12 eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well.

Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.”

However, the recipe may be apocryphal.

In an email to USA TODAY, Melissa Wood, director of communications at Mount Vernon said no eggnog recipe has been definitively linked to Washington. He was known to make a cherry bounce, a brandy-based drink popular in the eighteenth century, she said.

Eggnog caused a military riot

One of the most rambunctious chapters in eggnog’s history comes in 1826 when drunken revelry fueled by eggnog sparked a riot at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

It started days before Christmas Eve when cadets sneaked off to purchase about three to four gallons of whiskey from a local tavern, according to Smithsonian magazine’s account of the events.

Sherman Fleek, the academy’s command historian, told USA TODAY that cadets often sneaked away to drink at local taverns as alcohol was strictly forbidden at the time.

Cadets also always threw holiday parties, Fleek said, but this year, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, the academy’s superintendent at the time, wanted to crack down. Although the cadets respected Thayer, Fleek said, the party may have been planned to push back against his strictness.

On the actual night of the “celebrations,” two officers, Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock and Lieutenant William A. Thorton, were assigned to the North Barracks, per Smithsonian.

The party started off with the expected festivities, but the officers seemed able to keep control at first. Fleek said that a cadet at the time, future president of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis, was sent to his room for his drunkenness. “He was smart enough to stay there,” Fleek said.

However, things soon got out of hand. Cadets began threatening the officers. According to Smithsonian, Thorton was hit with a piece of wood. Fleek said some used furniture legs as batons. Hitchcock had a pistol pulled on him with a bullet that fired but hit the door instead. “When you drink to a point where your logic and good reason are no more, then you do something stupid,” Fleek added.

By the end of the night, dozens of cadets had taken part. However, Thayer aimed to punish only those who were the leaders. In all, at least 19 faced serious punishments, that included expulsion, suspension or demotion, Fleek said. Davis, however, was spared from serious punishment.

Fleek said he’d be surprised if cadets at the academy today where aware of the incident.

“The kids today would be shocked to know there was an eggnog riot and a pistol was fired at (an officer),” Fleek said.


© 2019 USA Today