Sitting in the back of my refrigerator, behind an old jar of capers and a bottle of rosé my wife opened this summer but never finished, lives a Jack’s Abby beer growler holding contents born several months before my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter: eggnog I made during the 2015 Christmas season. Has it turned green and curdled? Is it straight milky poison? Hardly. Not only is it potable, it’s more delicious and “safe” than the fresh eggnog I’ll make again this year. Yet convincing nonbelievers of that is a tall order.
“It was entirely possible that it wouldn’t work out and we would have wasted time, energy and precious spirits,” explained Patrick Smith, bar manager at New York’s The Modern, which launched their Bourbon Barrel-Aged Egg Nog (sic) last week. Made of a Crème anglaise pumpkin custard spiked with bourbon, Venezuelan rum, Cognac and Frangelico, then topped with calvados sabayon, it was aged in 15 1/2-gallon Finger Lakes Distilling Company’s McKenzie Bourbon barrels starting in July. “But luckily it ended up tasting fantastic, with the vanilla and spice flavors from the barrel really tempering the alcohol content and generally rounding things out; while somehow also making it more full-bodied and decadent.”
If folks are a bit squeamish, best of luck trying to talk them into drinking something composed of raw eggs and dairy which expired a long time ago. But just three weeks aging at around 14 percent ABV causes the booze to sterilize any potential pathogens. People in colonial times didn’t need the FDA or Rockefeller University—who tested out this hypothesis in 2009—to learn that, however, they just inherently knew.
“Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently,” are the final instructions in George Washington’s eggnog recipe from the Old Farmer’s Almanac. The first president would have almost certainly learned about eggnog (or, perhaps, its forebear called “posset”) from English and Irish settlers. Without refrigeration techniques, in fact, nearly all eggnog would have been somewhat aged well into the 20th century.
You can find discussion of aged eggnog all the way up to 1948’s The Wise Encyclopedia of Cooking, which included a recipe for something simply called “Christmas Eggnog,” which was recommended to be aged for a month or two. And, after that, talk of aged eggnog just sort of ceased. Then again, Americans weren’t really making fresh eggnog any more, either. The culinary laziness of the 1960s had ushered in TV dinners, microwavable snacks and pre-made eggnog from a cardboard carton. It would seemingly take the aughts and its new era of DIY foodies to put homemade, aged eggnog back on the map. It quietly returned into the food conversation courtesy of a brief 2006 Chowhound article entitled “Old but Not Lethal.” It told the story of Stanford lecturer Jonathan Hunt, whose family has been making aged eggnog since 1926, with Hunt noting of the flavor profile, “It’s like a green banana versus a just-ripe one.”
That small blurb—and included recipe—inspired noted cookbook author Michael Ruhlman to immediately try his own aged nog, reporting his eventual findings in a 2008 blog post. Back then he was still a bit leery, finding the taste now mellower, but predominantly of alcohol. He was still concerned about the healthfulness, too, writing: “I definitely checked for anything growing on top before shaking it up and pouring it.” By 2014, however, Ruhlman was obsessed. The early-2010s, it seems, is when aged eggnog really began to be more prominent.
Nick Bennett was head bartender at mad science cocktail den Booker & Dax around that time and it’s also when he first heard about (and tasted) aged eggnog. Sidra Durst, who was then helping the bar’s proprietor Dave Arnold launch MOFAD (the Museum of Food and Drink) came in one day with a version she had been making aging for years.
“It was the first time that I had ever heard of such a thing,” Bennett explains. “It was so tasty that I had to try it out and that first batch hooked me for life.”
These days, he regularly makes it both at home and in his current gig at Manhattan’s Porchlight. His version has become so well-known that it even made it into Sother Teague’s recent I’m Just Here For the Drinks, the first time aged eggnog has appeared in a modern cocktail tome. (Teague writes: “Aging eggnog is certainly mental—but in this case, it’s just crazy enough to work.”)
Aged eggnog has been slowly going more mainstream in recent years. In 2016, J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats tested various ages to see what tastes best—his tasters actually found fresh stuff to be the unanimous winner.
I’ve found that aged eggnog pretty much always “works,” you just need to find what your preferred aging time is. If Hunt recommends a year, Ruhlman still goes for two. Alton Brown prefers four to six months, while Bennett thinks eight to 12 months is the “sweet spot.” Though, I’m pushing that one in my fridge as long as I can, I think aged eggnog merely two weeks old is quite extraordinary—caramely, minty and just a bit funky, while smooth as silk. The more I talk to people, however, the more I learn that most are less concerned with hitting an exact perfect age, or even any salmonella-killing aspects, but, rather, where best to keep their projects the entire time throughout the aging process.
“When I started aging eggnog, I would leave it in a cool, dark part of my apartment where the temperature wouldn’t fluctuate much,” explains Bennett. He only recently moved his batches to the fridge after finding many friends loathe to try room temperature eggnog. “My wife wasn’t particularly thrilled about a yearlong batch of nog sitting on our counter either.”