In the Middle Ages, posset was a warm dish served to invalids and those suffering from a fever or cold. Milk was heated and then curdled by adding spiced wine, spirits, or ale. Egg yolks might be added as a thickener or to create a smooth thin custard-like drink. During the 18th and 19th centuries, lemons and oranges were used as part of the flavoring and/or for their acidic juices to aid the curdling. Sack posset made with Spanish fortified sherry-style wine was particularly popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. By the mid-18th century posset tended to be thickened with ground almonds, crushed biscuits, or egg yolks instead of alcohol.
Posset consistency, while thick, remained drinkable. For example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth slips poison into the possets of the guards outside Duncan’s quarters so they wouldn’t get in her murderous way, the beverage drank by the guards. Possets left sitting or allowed to cool would separate, creating a dessert layer of sweet gruel floating above the liquid. Posset pots, made of ceramic or metal, were specifically designed for the job: the spout allowing the liquid part to be poured and the thick layer eaten with a spoon.
Syllabub was essentially the same as a posset with two big differences: 1) It was thicker, more like a custard, and 2) was served cold. Because they were cold, syllabubs could be served in delicate glass pots without any fear of the glass cracking.The different types of syllabubs are based upon their mixing style. 17th-century syllabubs were usually whisked up into a froth and allowed to separate in the pot overnight. During the 18th century, the froth was laid spoon by spoon on a sieve and allowed to drain. The resulting ethereal spume was then floated on glasses of sweetened wine or coloured whey and served on a salver, becoming the centerpiece of the dessert table.
Take one Quart of Cream, one Pint and an half of Wine or Sack, the Juice of two Limons with some of the Pill, and a Branch of Rosemary, sweeten it very well, then put a little of this Liquor, and a little of the Cream into a Basin, beat them till it froth, put that Froth into the Sillibub pot, and so do till the Cream and Wine be done, then cover it close, and set it in a cool Cellar for twelve hours, then eat it. ~Hannah Wooley, The Queen-like Closet, 1674
One of the earliest written recipes for syllabub dates back to 1655, in the work “The Compleat Cook” by a British author known only as W.M. In this recipe, W.M. poured heavy cream into nutmeg-flavored hard cider and stirred it forcefully, creating syllabub’s trademark frothy bubbles.
The word syllabub comes from the name Sille, an area in the Champagne region of France that made the eponymously named wine, and the word bub, an Elizabethan slang word meaning a bubbling drink, hence Sille bub – wine mixed with a frothy cream. In fact it was a case of the frothier the better, and the best way to achieve this was to spray milk straight from the udder (which has a natural froth) into the wine, this kind of syllabub was also called ‘Hatted Kit’ and a recipe appears for it in Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housewife:
“Put a bottle of strong beer and a pint of cider into a punch bowl, grate in a small nutmeg and sweeten it to your taste. Then milk as much milk from the cow as will make a strong froth and the ale look clear. Let it stand an hour, then strew over it a few currants well washed, picked, and plumped before the fire. Then send it to the table.”
Possets thickened with eggs and sweetened with sugar evolved into a beverage similar to what became eggnog. Versions of posset and syllubub brought to America were concocted with rum, an alcohol Americans could get from the Caribbean for considerably less expense than liquors shipped from England. Over time Americans created eggnog with other unique spirits such as bourbon, rye whiskey, and sherry. In fact, George Washington concocted his own recipe including rum, whiskey, and sherry! Talk about potent.
There are two possible derivations for the name. One, in Colonial America, rum was commonly called “grog” so the name eggnog is likely derived from the very descriptive term for this drink: “egg-and-grog.” A second possibility is that the “nog” of eggnog comes from the word noggin, that being a small, wooden, carved mug used to serve drinks at tables in taverns. The true story might be a mixture of the two, eggnog originally called “egg and grog in a noggin”. This was a term that required shortening if ever there was one.
By the 1800s eggnog was nearly always made in large quantities and served as a social drink at holiday parties. An English visitor in 1866 noted, “Christmas is not properly observed unless you brew egg nogg for all comers; everybody calls on everybody else; and each call is celebrated by a solemn egg-nogging… It is made cold and is drunk cold and is to be commended.”
Debate exists as to whether eggnog should be made with cooked or uncooked eggs. Both versions have historic references so it is unclear which recipe is “original” although the uncooked versions appear to be most common until recent decades with the awareness of potential health issues in consuming uncooked eggs. Needless to say, there are a billion recipes available on the web covering every imaginable variety.