“It’s really not good for you,” says David Wondrich of the excessively rich 19th-century drink known as the Tom & Jerry. “But it’s just so freaking delicious.”
Made from a dozen eggs, more than a pound of sugar, and a blend of cinnamon, allspice and cloves alongside warm whole milk, a full bottle each of Cognac and Jamaican rum, the Tom & Jerry is a famously indulgent affair—one that reads more like a spice cake than a drink. Historically, between the end of the Civil War until the turn of the century, and starting around the time of year when cold days settle in, newspapers across the Northeast would announce the arrival of the season with cryptic jokes about Thomas and Jeremiah, “two well-known sports whose acquaintance should not be cultivated too deeply,” as one article put it. Today, the tradition lives on in the Midwest where, according to Wondrich, the Tom & Jerry “sent down its deepest roots.”
Wondrich, the bar world’s preeminent historian and a well-versed drink creator, does little to mess with the traditional New England recipe made popular by Jerry Thomas in the late 19th century. “I’m not so interested in innovation with things like this,” he says. “It’s so traditional and it’s not really a time to show off all your creative juices or whatever.” To the tried and true batter, he adds rich Plantation Xaymaca Jamaican rum—one of the most flavorful expressions available—and VSOP Cognac. “VS Cognacs are just not good in this kind of thing because they’re just not aged enough. They’re not concentrated enough. You want something to just be rich,” says Wondrich.
He does, however, make one significant departure from the recipe of Jerry Thomas: In place of water, he calls for milk. “Years ago, Audrey Saunders convinced me to not be such a stickler for the old recipe and use milk instead of water, so I use milk—it’s just better,” he admits. To keep the batter from separating (thus, necessitating constant stirring), he adds half a teaspoon of cream of tartar.
When it comes to serving the drink, Wondrich opts for a traditional ceramic bowl from the late 19th century when sets were widely commercially available, with accompanying “shaving cups,” as the small vessels are known, though he notes any mixing bowl will do. More important is the crowd you share it with. “I don’t make it every year, but I probably make it two years out of five,” says Wondrich. “It’s got to be the right gathering of people.” Given the indulgent nature of the drink, something he likens to “sucking the tailpipe of a crosstown bus, healthwise,” Wondrich admits that the ideal crowd often comes down to simply “people who aren’t going to be complaining about all the eggs and milk and brandy and rum and sugar.”
For Wondrich, doling out the warm, rich mixture for a group of close friends during the holidays is a tradition as important as the formula itself. “I like the ritual of it,” he says. “But I also like brandy and rum.”