Today's mixologists crow that ours is "The Cocktail Culture" and offer the many recent variations of the supposedly seminal Martini as proof. With all due respect to modern barroom chemists, the mixed drink has been with us for hundreds of years, and in a much more complex form than we dream of today. It just wasn't known by the name cocktail, but by the now much-maligned term punch. Because of the current season, which—with the exception of prom tide—is the only time we moderns are likely to partake of the stuff, let's drink a toast to holiday punch.
The name punch in the Western world dates to at least the seventeenth century, when British sailors encountered it in India, but the drink is certainly older. The term comes not from the effect of punch on one's head, but probably from the Hindi word for five—the accepted number of basic elements: sweet, sour, bitter, salt and alcohol. (Another plausible derivation is from puncheon, a vessel from which it was drunk.) The notion of mixing in extra beer, wine and spirits was popular in winter to numb the cold.
Weather and calendar connected punch to the holidays, when a drink served for communal celebration made so much sense, and the traditional holiday quaff of eggnog was born. Not only was its confluence of eggs, milk and spirits quite the bracer against the cold, but eggnog was something of a once-a-year treat. The average Englishman could rarely afford milk, and it became customary for the rich to offer eggnog as a sort of Christmas miracle.
But it was Americans who truly championed eggnog. A farming lot with plenty of eggs and milk, they also had ready access to rum, which replaced brandy as the spirit ingredient of choice. Plentitude caused such holiday bacchanalia that some communities outlawed Christmas celebrations altogether, which may have contributed to the importance we now place on marking the New Year (just a week later) with toasting. England can still claim ownership by virtue of the odd name nog, which probably comes from a British term for ale (an original part of the recipe), although noggin, a small mug, is another suggested root.
Whatever the source and the holiday, eggnog is a deliciously decadent way to reward yourself once a year with a drink that flouts any accepted health regimen. A favorite recipe follows (with the option to use rum, Bourbon, Scotch, Cognac or Armagnac). So put away that shaker and get out a punch bowl. Here's a recipe:
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup brown spirit
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 pint half and half cream
1 pint milk
In a large bowl, beat eggs to a froth. Add sugar and salt, continue beating. Stir in spirit, cream, vanilla and milk. Chill at least three hours. Serve with a sprinkle of nutmeg.