Probably the first taste of alcohol I ever tasted was whiskey. I’m not sure because I really don’t remember. I was only a kid and the drink was Christmas Egg Nog. In fact I can’t remember a Christmas at my Grandfather’s without the huge punchbowl full of sweet fluffed white peaks floating on the pale yellow concoction. The meringue topping was completely benign of alcohol so I could scoop it from the top of the bowl and enjoy the sweet nutmeg flavor and no one seemed to mind. But in the process I would inevitably scoop up some of the liquid. As I said, I don’t remember the first time I did this, only that I can’t remember not doing it; scooping up some sweet whiskey–rum creaminess, hidden under a scoop of the foamy white topping to stave off any adult intervention. I don’t think I ever got much more than a shot glass full throughout the evening but the hook was set, I was to be a whiskey man.
Years later when I was in my twenties I decided to take on the family egg nog recipe. My Grandfather had passed and so my Grandmother, Mimi, hand wrote it for me. She noted that it called for a pint of whiskey…but then she held out her hand as if she was holding an invisible whiskey bottle and tilted it several times as if to pour, and in so, silently passed on the unwritten and unspoken step to the formula; add more whiskey!
Now Mimi didn’t mind whiskey one bit and the bottle she always had around was Jack Daniel’s. But I was never advised what whiskey to make the egg nog with. The rum is specified, it must be Jamaican. But the whiskey is left nondescript. I was given plenty of advice on the rest of the process by the women in the family. “if you don’t mix it in a copper bowl all of the whites will go flat in an hour”, “you have to let the eggs come to room temperature before you whip them or it will never work”, “If the mixing bowl is not scrupulous sterile and your hands so clean that you’re ready for pre-op the whole thing will be ruined”, “if egg yolk contaminates the egg whites it’ll all explode!” They put the fear into me and since I didn’t really know my way around the kitchen too well I was taking mental notes and starting to sweat just thinking about it.
The first time I made it was the following Christmas, it must have taken me all afternoon to do. I used Canadian Mist I think. And of course I followed the silent step of adding a little more. I poured it all into clean milk jugs and took it to the party to be poured into the punch bowl. Everyone was impressed by the sight and I think a little surprised that I could pull it off. I poured the first taste for Mimi. I received compliments and congratulations. It wasn’t bad but I don’t think it was the best.
The following year I used Jack Daniel’s. The process became easier and I was less intimidated. When it was served up I remember my oldest brother exclaiming “Whoa, that’ll put hair on your chest!” Everyone that scooped up a cup had some explanation of how strong it was. Nobody stopped drinking it and everyone went back for more, but it was a strong batch. The odd thing was that I used exactly the same amount of whiskey as I did the year prior. So now I realized, even though it was only a third of the mix, the type of whiskey was important! In years to follow I tried different kinds of whiskey. Canadian Club, Crown Royal, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, anything I thought might make a better egg nog.
I was in my thirties before I started to learn about whiskey. Along with my education on whiskey came a history lesson. I learned that before prohibition the whiskey in Maryland was rye. Knowing that, and that my egg nog recipe was handed down through my family (my mother’s side) and that my family roots go back to before the American Revolution, and that they lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, it all started to make more sense of the recipe.
Before the Revolution egg nog was usually made with rum; the best rum was from Jamaica. There were other choices for rum. There was rum from other Caribbean islands and becoming more prevalent was rum made of imported molasses and distilled in the American Colonies. But all of that was trash compared to the rum from Jamaica and anyone with money made their egg nog with Jamaican rum. My family owned property and had money and no doubt made their nog with Jamaican rum.
So why then would the recipe in my hand call for one third of the liquid to be Whiskey and only one tiny ounce of rum to be added, specifically Jamaican rum? Well in my culinary-historical exploration I found that an imported rum embargo was established by the British Naval blockade from the beginning of the war. Local made rum soon disappeared too when the molasses became scarce. So how was a well-to-do family to make the traditional Christmas Egg Nog without Jamaican rum? Whiskey, that’s how. They would substitute whiskey for rum. But if there was no rum in the mix, technically it wasn’t a nog. The word nog deriving from grog, a British Navel slang for any drink being of or containing rum. So if there was even one ounce of rum in the punch bowl it could be called, in good conscience, egg nog.
So that explains the one ounce of rum but why so emphatic with the origin of the rum and not so much as a mention of the type of the whiskey, which at this point makes up a third of the batch? Well as mentioned before, with rum, there were choices; with whiskey there were none. Back at the time that rum became in short supply there was no Bourbon or Canadian or Tennessee Whiskey. There was only whiskey, and in America, whiskey was Rye!
At some point in my annual rotation through different whiskeys trying to find the best for the mix I stumbled upon a local Maryland brand. Well not really, it used to be local back in the 70’s but then it was bought up and the recipe moved to Kentucky and is now made there. But it still touts the claim “Maryland Recipe”. It was Pikesville Supreme Straight Rye Whiskey, “the Aristocrat of Straight Whiskeys”,(or so the bottle says). It was cheap, back then before the whiskey boom it was $9.00 for a plastic bottle. I think the price as much as anything else enticed me to give it a try. I mixed it up that year, same as always, tipping the bottle a few more times, mimicking the motion my Grandmother did with the invisible bottle years before. I didn’t expect anything better than any other year.
I brought it in to the party, poured it into the handed-down punch bowl, whipped the whites and added them to the batch and dashed it with nutmeg. Everyone relished in the presentation of the grand punch bowl full of The Christmas Egg Nog surrounded by matching glasses. As always, I would present the first glass to the matriarch (or patriarch) of the family. Mimi always had a smile when she received the opening shot. She always had something approving to say as everyone looked on. I remember her taking a sip one year and looking me straight in the eyes, raising both eyebrows just a little and giving a couple quick, mini nods as she said “that’s good”. At which point everyone’s glass was charged and the Christmas celebration continued on.
On this particular year, the year I stumbled on the rye, I expected no different. I mixed it up to specifications, mixed the whites at the latest’s moment and served it up to the senior member of the family as all watched. Mimi took her first sip and exclaimed “that’s the way it’s supposed to taste!!” The glasses served, everyone was happy and I was ecstatic. Looking back I think that was the first truly honest opinion of the nog I received. I mean, I think she liked each annual batch but the way she said “that’s the way it’s supposed to taste!” was almost as if whatever polite and encouraging comment she had mentally prepared to offer was instantly forgotten and a childlike blurt belted out of her mouth.
Perhaps the memories of old Christmas’ prior attached to something in that year’s mix of egg nog brought forth a level of excitement that could not be contained. All I know is that this was the first time that I used Rye. And I’m certain that Rye was the whiskey that was used in the mix from the onset of the Revolutionary war until the last distillery left Maryland in the 70’s.
Historically there are a lot of different ideas on the origin of the drink and even more about the origin of the name. Depending on what you read, the drink is believed to derive from the Whisky Flip, or the Syllabub or German Biersuppe. Some think that egg nog and all of the rest of these drinks evolved from the 14th century drink Posset.
Arguments for the name include the fact that an old name for a small wooden cup from which it was drunk was noggin or nog, which also came to be a slang word for strong ale and which name was also used by the Navy for rum or anything with rum in it.
No one is really sure of any of that. What we do know is that once the variations of all of these recipes and influences came to the American Colonies, sometime in the 18th century there was a collision of an abundance of cows, chickens, rum, occasional cold weather, and people that like to drink booze. That’s all it took and it was called Egg Nog, (not Eggnog).
George Washington hand wrote his recipe and it included brandy, sherry, rye, and Jamaican rum. His recipe was most likely from before the British blockade and he was rich enough to buy those hard to get black market libations even after the war. The rest of the newly forming United States were not so fortunate and had to find a substitute for the imported liquors. Whiskey was the natural answer. My family’s recipe would be one of those recipes to benefit from the new world’s great spirit rye whiskey; which at that time was un-aged. By the time my Grandfather got the recipe the whiskey would have been an aged Maryland rye. The flavor imparted from the American oak barrel becoming an integral part of the spice.
Curious how the egg nog would have tasted with un-aged rye I decided to do an experiment. I selected a craft un-aged rye whisky, one that I really like to sip neat. The brand was Catoctin Creek and they call their un-aged rye Mosby’s Spirit. It’s made in Virginia so that also helped with the geographic authenticity in trying to recreate the old recipe. Mosby’s Spirit is a premium, organic, 100% rye whiskey. It is surprisingly smooth and light and a bit fruity. It’s a real treat to drink by itself or in a cocktail.
I have to admit that I thought that I might be dusting off the Rosetta Stone of historical egg nog recipes when I began to gather the ingredients for this batch. I thought that by remarrying an un-aged straight organic rye I would be recreating, perhaps for the first time in over a century, the actual drink that our forefathers drank during and after the American Revolution. And in fact I think I actually did just that… but I didn’t like it. The delicate organic rye was a bit too smooth and became lost in the mix. The oaky flavor that had been present at one level or another in all of the other whiskies that I’ve used over the years or sampled in the family egg nog was just not there. Even if this was how my American ancestors drank it, the family has come to expect something a little different over the last century of whiskey ageing.
Not to be defeated I immediately set off to make another batch a day later. This time I used Mosby’s older sister, Roundstone Rye. This is the exact spirit as the Mosby’s only aged around a year and a half or so in the American Oak. Much better! My wife, Father in Law and house guests were becoming connoisseurs by now on different variations of egg nog. They had been drinking the Pikesville Rye versions at Christmas for years now and all agreed the un-aged version lacked something. The aged Roundstone Rye was a step up and was really smooth. Really smooth! Maybe too smooth? My wife loved it and my father in Law was complimenting it as fast as he could suck it down but to me there was something lacking and when I pressed they both acknowledge there was something missing.
So the next night I gathered all the parts needed and made yet another batch, this time with the Pikesville Rye. We haven’t had this version since Christmas the year before and I was curious just how much difference there was actually going to be. Once I put it all together and served up the samples the truth came forth. “That’s the way it’s supposed to taste!”
The Pikesville Rye as a whiskey can’t hold a candle to the craft made Roundstone Rye. But as an ingredient that is to be mixed and coated in cream and sugar the Roundstone lacked that little wicked edge that the cheep Pikesville Supreme had and needed to maintain its proper place in the drink.
I was satisfied. I was back to the recipe that my late Grandmother Mimi validated over a decade and a half ago. It continues on and the Christmas Egg Nog will be handed down to the next person in our family that steps forward to claim the responsibility. Two hundred years from now, on Christmas day, my family will gather around a punch bowl of milk, cream, sugar, whiskey and a bit of rum to share in warm fellowship and laughter and in the making of cherished memories in the same fashion that my family did two hundred years ago, and as we will do this season.
Here is the link to the recipe for The Wrightson Christmas Egg Nog: http://zuluwhisky.com/wrightson-egg-nog-recipe
If you don’t like the thought of raw egg in your drink go to this link for some reassurance: http://zuluwhisky.com/egg-nog-is-it-safe