The Happiest Hours: Fisticuffs of the Tom and Jerry


We went looking for a holiday drink worthy of a follow up to Brother Cleve’s post on Egg Nogg last week, and we think we have just the ticket. But truth be told, not even our crack team of boozy historians here at Union Park Press can parse the history of the Tom and Jerry. So, we’ll just give you the “facts.”

Let’s start here in Boston, where Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, would visit Parker’s, a grog shop of the 1850s, at 4 Court Square. He writes:

At the counter stand, at almost all hours,—certainly at all hours when I have chanced to observe,—tipplers, either taking a solitary glass or treating all round, veteran topers, flashy young men, visitors from the country, the various petty officers connected with the law, whom the vicinity of the Court House brings hither. Chiefly, they drink plain liquors, gin, brandy or whiskey, sometimes a Tom and Jerry, a gin cocktail (which the bartender makes artistically, tossing it in a large parabola from one tumbler to another until fit for drinking), a brandy smash, and numerous other concoctions. 

So we know the Tom and Jerry was part of the Parker’s repertoire. We also know that the drink was being made elsewhere in the United States during the same time period, as there is a recipe for this quirky hot egg nog in the 1862 How to Mix Drinks by “Professor” Jerry Thomas, grandaddy of mixology. Interestingly, after giving the somewhat complicated instructions Thomas notes that “this drink is sometimes called the Copenhagen, and sometimes Jerry Thomas.”

The italics are his—and so is the wink, methinks. For more often than not, cocktail historians credit the creation of the Tom and Jerry not to the Professor, but to a publicity stunt of the 1820s, staged by the English writer Pierce Egan. Egan was promoting his book, Life in London; or, the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom, Accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis. The drink was named for the main characters, Tom and Jerry, who appear to have been bon-vivants the likes of which the Professor would have approved. (Indeed, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law would fit the bill nicely.)

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Here’s another odd twist, though: David Wondrich (amazing historian of cocktails) somewhat cryptically claims the drink goes back to New England in the 1820s, which is odd as Pierce Egan never lived in New England, but rather Jolly Old England all his life. (Mr. Wondrich, if you are out there, would you mind clarifying this?)

Plays based on his novels did make their way across the pond—and one imagines the novels did as well. Regardless, the plays were quite popular. So it does make sense that chilly New Englanders fell prey to the Tom and Jerry mania that overtook the nation, and were keen early adopters of the Tom and Jerry cocktail, which was popular well into the Eisenhower era.

Last twist (I promise): until somewhat recently, the Tom and Jerry was a drink mostly kept alive by bourbon aficionados of yonder Midwest (check out this article in the New York Times) where a big industry seems to have been spawned by the drink: commercial batter producers. So, for those who don’t have it in them to separate, beat, and fold eggs, a pre-made batter is still available for sale. In fact, the Tom and Jerry cocktail was once so common across the country that an ancillary mug and punch bowl business bloomed around the drink. (Seekers of authenticity: you can still find the vintage “Tom and Jerry” mugs on eBay.)

Whatever the provenance of the drink, one thing is for sure: this holiday season, I want to party like these guys. You bet your mistletoe that this is what I’ll be putting in the punchbowl when the in-laws come to visit.

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Tom and Jerry

(From Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail.)

For the batter:

12 fresh eggs, seperated
3 pounds granulated white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
2 ounces anejo rum

In a large bowl, beat egg yolks until they are thin as water, adding the sugar while beating. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Add the spices and rum to the yolks. Mix in the stiff whites and stir until the mixture is the consistency of a light batter. (1 teaspoon of cream of tartar of 1/4 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda will percent the sugar from settling to the bottom of the batter.)

For the drink:

2 tablespoons of batter
1 1/2 ounces brandy
1/2 ounce anejo rum
3 or 4 ounces boiling water
Freshly grated nutmeg, for dusting

Put the batter in the bottom of a ceramic mug, add the spirits and the boiling water and stir. Dust with nutmeg and serve.


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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