12 Days of Christmas Science: Eggnog, a drink so rank people used it to kill germs.


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Eggnog is one of those Christmas traditions that divides opinions. Some people swear by it – probably more for the alcohol – while other people think the drink is about as rank as spoiled milk… which is interesting since most food historians agree that eggnog originated from a popular medieval drink called posset. 

Typically, eggnog is made with milk, cream, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, egg yolks, and whipped egg whites. Distilled spirits such as brandy, rum, whisky or bourbon is often added and considered, by many, a key ingredient.

Posset, eggnog’s progenitor, differs slightly. According to many 15th century sources, the drink is made by boiling milk, adding either wine or ale “and no salt”, letting it cool, gathering the curds and discarding the whey, and seasoning with ginger, sugar, and possibly “sweet wine” and candied anise. (NOTE: The addition of wine or ale serves to curdle the milk.)  In 16th-century and later sources, possets are generally made from lemon or other citrus juice (again causing the milk to curdle), cream and sugar. Eggs are often added. Some recipes used breadcrumbs to thicken the beverage.


According to The Guardian, Posset was a drink mostly enjoyed by the well-off. 

Possets were served in ceramic posset pots, which looked a bit like a teapot with two handles. They were usually very decorative and extremely expensive to buy. This dish is therefore one of a high standard. Posset was originally more of a drink than a pudding and was often given to people in rich households when they were feeling unwell.
Posset, made from hot milk curdled with ale or wine, and sometimes thickened with breadcrumbs, was drunk as a popular remedy for colds. Spices could also be added to the mixture. This pot, which was used to store posset, is made from tin-glazed earthenware. The pot is decorated with three rows of raised bumps formed by a technique known as repoussé, where the clay is hammered from the inside. (CREDIT: Wellcome Collection)

Due to its richness, posset was believed to be good for fortitude and “strengthening.” It was frequently used as a medicine. Fifteenth century sources suggested that posset should be taken for illnesses. John Russell’s compilation of household practices, Boke of Nurture (c. 1475), notes that “þe possate” and similar dishes, such as milk, cream, and curds, “close a mannes stomak”. In addition to being good for digestion, posset was also believed to increase libido. 

Similar to posset, for a time, it seems eggnog was often thought to have medicinal properties. An 1892 scientific journal article proposes the use of eggnog to treat “grippe”, commonly known as the “flu”, along with ammonium chloride to treat the cough and quinine to cure the illness.

Maybe the drink’s rank taste chased away the microscopic meanies…

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