For much of eggnog’s 160 plus-year existence, it occupied a realm not unlike that of the Tom & Jerry: “something your parents had at parties,” as Toby Cecchini, the owner of Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar, says. It belonged at home, not at a cocktail bar. Yet in recent years—and with a significant boost from the pandemic—eggnog has become a fixture on wintertime bar menus across the country.
For this reason, we thought it time to sit down with a panel of tasters and sample nearly a dozen examples in search of the best of the best. I was joined by Cecchini, vocal eggnog proponent Aaron Goldfarb and Punch art director Lizzie Munro. Preparing the nogs ahead of time (and à la minute in a few cases where specified) was bartender Tim Miner, formerly of Long Island Bar and Death & Co.
Unlike any other classic cocktail tasting we’ve undertaken, the judges were not picky about what base spirit was deployed. In fact, eggnog—traditionally made from eggs, sugar, milk, nutmeg and, depending on the recipe, brandy and rum or sometimes even sherry or cider— might be the only cocktail in which the importance of the nonalcoholic ingredients outweighs that of the actual alcohol. “It’s the Jabba the Hutt of cocktails,” says Cecchini. “The cream and eggs gobble everything up.”
As the tasting progressed, Cecchini’s assessment rang true. For many examples, the judges could not easily identify the base spirit with certainty, in part because they often included a blend of whiskey, brandy and rum, contributing to a generic “eggnog” profile. But this wasn’t necessarily deemed a deficiency so long as the experience of the drink followed an arc that began with a rich creaminess and ended with a dry booziness. The judges were looking for examples that invited another sip and made the inherent indulgence of the drink worthwhile with the right balance of texture and flavor. “It’s a one-drink cocktail,” said Goldfarb, describing the tendency to move on to another drink after the first glass. “It has to be perfect.”
Despite preconceptions that the spirit of choice did not matter much, entries that strayed from the traditional or leaned on a single base spirit fared far worse than their traditional, blended-base counterparts. As Miner noted, “Things like tequila and sherry work surprisingly well, but not necessarily better than whiskey, Cognac or rum.”
Similarly, on the whole, recipes batched ahead of time, with at least a day to rest and integrate (one had been aging for two weeks), were better received than the drinks instructed to be whipped up à la minute. Likewise, with one notable exception, nogs on the rocks were quickly dismissed; unlike virtually every other cocktail, eggnog does not necessarily benefit from dilution, and the colder temperature (most nogs were pulled from the refrigerator and given a quick stir or dry shake before serving) can lead to a perceived lack of the signature richness. As Cecchini explained, “Eggnog represents itself best at fridge temp.”
For a drink that leans so heavily on dairy, it’s not surprising that the only two recipes to emphasize the importance of the eggs and cream were also the two top vote-getters. Tied for first were the nogs of Sarah Morrissey, of Ernesto’s in New York, and Max Overstrom-Coleman, of Wolf Tree in White River Junction, Vermont.
Overstrom-Coleman’s recipe blends equal parts bourbon, Cognac and Myers’s rum with heavy cream, milk, farm-fresh eggs, sugar, a little salt and nutmeg incorporated into the batch so that it can be tasted throughout, not just on the first sip. He notes that “this recipe shines when you have access to the exceptional dairy products we have here in Vermont,” and suggests springing for the best you can find in your area. Served in a chilled Nick & Nora glass with a fresh grating of nutmeg, his recipe was found to be the archetypal example of a traditional eggnog, with a creamy texture that still felt light and almost fluffy, underscored by a detectable boozy backbone.
Morrissey’s, meanwhile, was deemed the most “cocktail-like” of the bunch, partly due to its presentation, which called for a lavish plume of mint dusted with cinnamon and nutmeg, served in a rocks glass. The recipe itself, however, is categorically nog, with the clever but unexpected flourishes of coffee and vanilla liqueurs bolstering the heirloom eggs, Ronnybrook cream and Lustau brandy de Jerez, for a drink that reads like a melted coffee milkshake in the best possible way. Though it’s shaken and served on the rocks, Morrissey notes that “the foam should be rich and bubbly, but not watered down.”
Coming in third was the nog of Tom Macy, partner at Brooklyn’s Clover Club. His recipe called on a duo of vanilla and cinnamon syrups, which lent a Christmas-spice undercurrent to the expected milk, cream and trio of spirits (Cognac, rum and bourbon). The judges found the texture to be silky and satisfying, while the drink cloaked a surprising fruit flavor that made you want to go back for another sip. As Cecchini summarized, “It takes you straight sideways the second you taste it.”