FORGET THE War on Christmas. If we truly want to move America into a new era of bipartisan, interfaith holiday tranquillity, we need to end the War on Eggnog.
Strong in stance and swift in judgment, the anti-nog lobby in this country is formidable.
Boldly disregarding their poor mothers' "if you can't say something nice" directives, members have turned the cowardly public trashing of this historic beverage into an art form. Mirth-filled mugs of cold-weather cheer, concocted with eggs, sugar, milk, wintry spices and enough hard liquor to raise Bukowski from the grave are now subject to rash attacks from the straight-hate side of the aisle.
It's too sweet.
It's too heavy.
It makes me sick.
It's so unhealthy.
I had a bad experience with it at Uncle Jeff's Secret Santa gift exchange in 1987, and I'll never drink it again.
As unreasonable as this all sounds to the pro-nog people of this great country (can you tell I'm one?), it's not all their fault. We've gotten away from the true essence of the nog, and our definitions and expectations have been strained as a result.
Luckily, right here in Philly, there's a small contingent of bartenders doing the Lord's work this holiday season - assuming the Lord (whichever one you like) is a dyed-in-the-wool nog lover.
Americans have been drinking eggnog, or something like it, since the 1700s. Though working eggs (particularly the whites) into cocktails has found a nostalgic niche on modern cocktail lists, this practice was common among 18th-century bartenders. Look at a drink like flip, a combination of ale, rum or brandy, eggs and sugar, quickly poured between two containers until thick and frothy, then topped with grated nutmeg.
This could be considered the proto-nog.
Nog by that name, meanwhile, started showing up around the turn of the 19th century. In his book Imbibe!, cocktail historian David Wondrich digs up an early mention of eggnog in print: a juicy political tidbit in an 1801 edition of the Pittsburgh Gazette, involving a western Pennsylvania judge getting so belligerent on the stuff in a Washington County tavern that some locals were forced to douse hizzoner with buckets of ice water.
Eggnog: Ruining Christmas since the Jefferson administration!
(Donal McCoy, the Irishman who owns Sassafras in Old City, never had eggnog growing up, but "took to it like a duck to water" upon arriving Stateside.)
The sneaky strength of nog made with a heavy hand - it goes down easy . . . almost too easy - seems to be one reason people are so conflicted about its consumption during the holiday season. Another big one: the quality, or lack thereof, of commercial nogs stocked in the supermarket cold case.
"That stuff you get in the grocery store is pretty gross," says Emmanuelle bartender Phoebe Esmon, who, on Sunday night, will offer a special all-nog menu at her Northern Liberties cocktail lounge. "[It] generally involves a bunch of emulsifiers and corn syrup and other questionable coloring agents and chemical compounds."
"Sweet" Lou DiNunzio, bartender at Rex 1516, also connects nog naysayers with mass-produced versions. "Store-bought eggnog killed the market on it over the years," he said. "It's highly viscous, like drinking pancake batter. People don't understand what the final product should be like."
Though he readily admits that he enjoys crushing an entire quart of this batter-like nog while stalking the supermarket aisles for Christmas dinner, DiNunzio's right: That thick, sickly sweet product is just a third of the total equation.
Cutting that base with alcohol, spices and flavorings, plus lightening it up by working in a whipped element (cream or egg whites) - is not only traditional, it's absolutely vital to the enjoyment. No wonder so many people say no to nog.
A proper final product, done DiNunzio's way, will be poured at the bar at Rex tonight - his personal interpretation of Dwight D. Eisenhower's recipe, involving heavy cream and half-and-half cold-infused with winter spices and aromatics, then crowned with an iced gingerbread candy cane.
DiNunzio and Emmanuelle's Esmon - she'll serve options like "Nog a la Thomas," bartending legend Jerry Thomas' 1862 recipe using cognac and Jamaica rum - aren't the only local bartenders boarding the nog train this holiday season.
At Sassafras, McCoy's guys will produce their version, featuring a split base of Dad's Hat Rye, distilled in Bristol, and SNAP, the gingersnap-like liqueur from Philly's Art in the Age. They go so far as to use a stand mixer to whip their egg whites with sugar into an airy meringue.
Starting Monday and running through the new year, Vincent Stipo of Rittenhouse's a.bar will accommodate all nog lovers with his rum and/or bourbon-cognac variations, which also require some elegant culinary processes, served cold. (The temperature argument is a topic of some debate among nog lovers, but for the record, all these bartenders swear by cold nog.)
According to Stipo, an issue as simple as portion size contributes to negative feelings toward nog. Whether you're a sugar-crazed kid or an overzealous ugly-sweater-wearing adult, chugging a Viking-size mug of the stuff can very well lead to upset stomachs - and ruined-for-life alcoholic perceptions.
Moderation is the key to enjoyment and, hopefully, shifting attitudes in the War on Eggnog. "You always want to leave people wanting one more sip," Stipo said.