Christmas Eggnog: The Annotated Recipe
A look at the origins of this classic holiday drink and how to mix it up properly.
OK, eggnog is not strictly a cocktail. It will, however, get your feet just as tangled as any Manhattan, martini, Corpse Reviver, or Mind Eraser, without even doing you the favor of letting you know you’re imbibing high-proof alcohol. That in fact is what it’s for: a spirits-based American improvisation on various old-school, ale-based English egg drinks. It dates back to at least 1788, when our spirits were rough and fiery and needed taming. Among the things traditionally used to tame raw spirits are sugar, milk or cream, and eggs. Eggnog, in typical American fashion, throws all three at the problem.
Among the many versions out there, Baltimore Eggnog is, to my mind, the suavest. A freshly made bowl—or even a glass—is to the store-bought stuff, no matter how fancily you might spike it, what truffles are to truffle oil. Sure, it takes a little work. But the work is its own reward—or would be, if Baltimore Eggnog wasn’t around.
THE AUTHOR & THE DRINK
Jerry Thomas (1830-1885) almost needs no introduction. The most famous bartender in America from the 1860s until his death, he was a Yankee born and bred. As a young man, he sailed around the world before the mast, mined for gold in California, ran minstrel shows, attended bare-knuckle boxing matches and, of course, mixed a lot of drinks. In 1862, he published How to Mix Drinks, the first book to round up and organize the unruly mass of “fancy drinks” that Americans had been making, from cocktails and juleps to slings, fixes, sours and, of course, eggnogs. Between 1866 and his death, he owned and managed some of New York’s most popular bars. Nowadays, he’s the patron saint of American bartenders.
Thomas’s recipe for Baltimore Eggnog isn’t much different from the recipe Eliza Leslie published in her 1837 Directions for Cookery, except in the matter of the booze. But then again, it’s a drink, and the booze is important. It’s true, Miss Leslie—as she billed herself—called for rum or brandy, just like Jerry Thomas does (whiskey was rarely anyone’s first choice for fancy drinks at the time), but she doesn’t specify which sort. Thomas’s “Jamaica rum” would have been a strong, funky, full-flavored affair, the sort of thing that pirates liked to bite a few inches of before they set to their pirating. Then there’s the Madeira. It’s the addition of this rich, sweet, and complex fortified wine that makes his eggnog a Baltimore Eggnog: In Thomas’s day, that city had a deep cadre of merchant families who had been importing Madeira—traditionally, the preferred wine in America—for almost two centuries. A good Bual or Sercial or a good, blended fine rich Madeira adds a great depth of flavor to the drink that moves it far from the custardy, one-note drink that comes in the carton.
THE ORIGINAL RECIPE
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Eggs were smaller then and a dozen will do fine. Also, cut back the sugar: They liked things very sweet back then. A half-cup of white sugar will do nicely. For the brandy, use a VSOP Cognac or Armagnac. It’s expensive, but anything lesser won’t give you the richness the drink calls out for. If using rum, you’ll want a full-bodied, funky one. Smith & Cross, the strong, intense Jamaica rum that mixologists tend to reach for in these circumstances, is too overpowering. Something like Appleton Reserve works well here, or even one of the spicier blends, such as Banks 7. Better still is the suggestion M.L. Tyson made in her 1870 compendium of Maryland recipes, Queen of the Kitchen, to split the spirit between rum and peach brandy (provided you can find the peach brandy), half a cup of each. As for the Madeira, a “wineglass” here is a standard measure: 2 ounces. Four ounces of Madeira is plenty here. Some may prefer this with only 4 pints of milk.
Notes on Execution:
If you have an electric egg beater, you will be a very happy person.
The Annotated Cocktail presents a recipe for a classic drink exactly as it appeared for the first time in print and walks you through how to make it today so that it will be both historically accurate and delicious.