The Happiest Hours: Egg Nogg with Brother Cleve

This week’s cocktail comes from the high priest of Boston’s cocktail scene: Brother Cleve. If you are not familiar with Cleve, take it from Drinking Boston author Stephanie Schorow: “Cleve—even his close friends call him that—speaks softly and exudes quiet passion. Passion for playing music. Passion for composing. Passion for noir films. Passion for professional wrestling. And passion for the art of the cocktail. When he puts on his porkpie hat and retro suit, he is the poster child for the craft cocktail movement.”  These days, you can find him  mixing music and killer cocktails at Red Star Union in Kendall Square or pouring at First Printer in Cambridge, where he will be DJing alongside DJ Audioprophecy on New Year’s Eve during the bar’s Speakeasy Ball.

When I was a young kid growing up in the 1960’s, I learned early on that it was impossible to fully enjoy Christmas without a glass, or two, of Egg Nog. I also learned early on that there were two types of Nog—one that the adults drank and the one that the kids drank. Theirs certainly smelled a lot different than mine, with a scent that, to my young senses, was redolent of gasoline. Sometimes I would pick up the wrong glass (often on purpose, as I got older) and take a sip, thinking that flames and smoke would detonate behind my eyeballs. I knew back then that Egg Nog was a product made in Charlestown, MA by H.P. Hood and his sons, and sold at the local A&P and Stop ‘N Shop—but only during the winter holiday season.

Yet Egg Nogg (yes, that’s the original spelling) hasn’t always been something at your local supermarket, to be mixed with booze at a holiday party, lubricating the guests and enticing them for a trip under the mistletoe. The origins of the drink do reveal it to be an American libation enjoyed during the Christmas season. And it’s been around for quite some time. Cocktail historian David Wondrich notes that the first documented account of the drink that he’s found so far appears in 1801. By the 1850s, it was an immensely popular beverage. Crafted as a breakfast drink (just as cocktails originally were), this hearty tipple of milk, egg yolk, and sugar, abetted by rum and/or brandy and/or fortified wine (Sherry or Madeira), was traditionally quaffed on Christmas morning and throughout the week leading up to New Year’s Day.

The basic recipe has remained the same for roughly 200 years. It should be noted that Egg Nogg is listed in the very first cocktail recipe book, HOW TO MIX DRINKS -OR- THE BON VIVANTS COMPANION, written by the now-legendary “Professor” Jerry Thomas back in 1862. Thomas, the most celebrated bartender of that era, lists five types of Egg Nogg, each made with 3 or 4 ounces of the different spirits listed above, as well as a “dry” Temperance version made with cider. After World War II, the drink was downsized to a simple ounce of blended whiskey or (Bacardi) rum added to a mug of (store bought) Egg Nog. For our recipe, I have selected the Sherry Egg Nogg, which uses a medium-sweet Oloroso sherry, the kind traditionally used in cocktails a century or so ago. By the 1880s, the Fancy Egg Nogg (aka Sherry Egg Nogg No.2) began appearing in cocktail guides, in which an ounce of brandy/cognac was added to the concoction. We’ll use this fabulous variation as our holiday drink.

Sherry is a fortified wine from the Andalusian region of Spain. Once viewed as a pensioner’s beverage (in its Dry Sack or sweet Harvey’s Bristol Cream flavors), it’s a spirit that the Cocktail Renaissance has helped to resuscitate; a plethora of brands and styles (from aperitif to dessert) are now exported from Spain and are proffered at quality craft cocktail bars and liquor stores. Many folks who had never appreciated sherries have now acquired the taste. Many of those same folks have looked back at long “lost” cocktails, realizing that these tipples were inventively conceived and are simply delicious.

This recipe exemplifies how Egg Nogg would have tasted on a Christmas morn back in, say, 1895. Homemade Egg Nogg (that last “g” inexplicably disappeared from cocktail manuals during the 1940’s) will be slightly less sweet than a drink made with mass produced Egg Nog grabbed off your grocer’s shelf. You should taste a pleasant balance between the sherry, the cognac, and the dairy. I strongly recommend using whole milk, perhaps organic, in this drink; you’re really not going to be drinking that many of them, and you can have those Skinny Tinis or whatever the hell they are later. And please do not be afraid of the egg! You can overcome fear of salmonella by remembering this simple fact: alcohol kills bacteria. Back in the day, Egg Nogg was considered a health drink! Don’t laugh.

I have listed the currently available brands that I feel will provide the most authentic,  antique, flavors:

SHERRY EGG NOGG (FANCY)  {circa 1880s}

1 tsp refined white sugar
1 tsp water
1 large egg
2 oz Lustau East India Solera Sherry
1 oz Pierre Ferrand Original 1840 Formula Cognac
3 oz whole milk
In a cocktail shaker, add sugar and water to the bottom of the mixing glass, and stir to blend. Add egg yolk/white, followed by the sherry and cognac. Tightly seal the shaker top and bottom halves and then shake for a minute to emulsify the egg with the sugar and spirits (this is known as a “dry shake”). Add milk and ice to the mixing glass and shake vigorously for a few minutes to create a frothy concoction….the longer you shake the frothier it gets. Strain into a tall Collins-style glass. Grate fresh nutmeg and/or cinnamon on the top of the beverage. A straw would not be out of place in this drink.
And yes, you could make this drink in a blender, if you really want to. Be sure to use a small amount of ice; otherwise you’ll get too much dilution (uh, you know…water!) and ruin the drink. And don’t even think about some tofutti version of this, okay?!

Cheers and happy holidays!

– Brother Cleve

For more about yesterday’s drinks and today’s hotspots, pick up a copy of Drinking Boston: A History of the City and Its Spirits, by Stephanie Schorow or download the free smartphone app. Cheers!

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