There are few holiday traditions more classic than the enjoyment of a Tom & Jerry, eggnog’s sexy, spicy, warming cousin.
And for those who love to preserve century old traditions, this drink is a perfect indulgence, particularly during the coldest months of the year.
As happens with so many long-held traditions, there's also a fascinating mythology surrounding the origin of the cocktail.
Most origin stories are wrong
The creation of the egg-based cocktail is often attributed to celebrity bartender "Professor" Jerry Thomas of St. Louis, who included the cocktail in his 1862 edition of "How to Mix Drinks" (reprinted and available as "The Bartenders Guide") and blatantly took credit for the tipple. However, there’s myriad evidence provided in cocktail historian David Wondrich’s book "Imbibe!" suggesting that the cocktail existed prior to Thomas’ birth and is likely to have found its origins in England during the early 1820s.
The drink is often credited to English author Pierce Egan who penned a play by the same name; Wondrich suggests the name can be credited indirectly to him as well. "To go Tom and Jerrying was to go out on the town," he writes. "A Tom and Jerry was also a low dive. And, in this case, a festive but lethal sort of drink."
Nonetheless, "Professor" Thomas definitely did his part to make the cocktail a noteworthy element in U.S. cocktail history. In fact, thanks largely to his flamboyant promotion, the drink became a winter staple at countless 19th century saloons throughout America, experiencing a resurgence among the party set in the 1950s before fading into relative obscurity.
Of course, hearty, loyal Midwesterners continued to be devotees of the cocktail, particularly those who lived in Northern climes like Minnesota and Wisconsin. In fact, it’s primarily at our behest that the cocktail lives on, providing warmth and comfort during the coldest months of the year. So drinking it around the holidays contributes avidly to its survival.
Here in Milwaukee, you’ll find renditions of the drink served at at least a few area establishments during the month of December. Among them are:
Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge
Tom & Jerry pop-up at Zocalo
Zocalo Food Park, 636 S. 6th St.
The Bryant's Cocktail Lounge Tom & Jerry room tradition has found a new home for 2020. Head to Zocalo for a delicious Tom & Jerry or one of their other holiday-themed cocktails. [More info here]
Elsa’s on the Park
833 N. Jefferson St., (414) 765-0615
Bask in the glow of the annual Elsa's Christmas tree while sipping on this classic warmer.
The Packing House
900 E. Layton Ave., (414) 483-5054
Head here to enjoy the old school supper club vibe (and an old school cocktail to match)! It's been serving up these tipples since it opened in 1974.
2235 N. Farwell Ave., (414) 272-1775
Is there a more appropriate spot celebrrated the holiday season than this East Side classic? The warming Tom & Jerry is housemade and includes a combination of both brandy and rum.
Make your own
People will have you believe that making these drinks is a chore; but it takes little more than a few turns of the whisk and a little bit of time to make a great Tom & Jerry batter. There are a good number of not-so-great recipes out there, so here’s my (tested and true) rendition of the holiday warmer. Feel free to double the batter recipe and freeze the leftovers for impromptu holiday gatherings.
Tom & Jerry
Makes enough batter for 12 8-ounce drinks
3 eggs, separated
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
2 tsp. Brandy (or dark rum)
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1⁄4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1⁄8 tsp. ground allspice
1⁄8 tsp. ground cloves
Boiling water (for warming mugs)
Bittercube Blackstrap bitters
12 ounces brandy or dark rum
6 ounces bourbon
8 cups whole milk
Freshly grated nutmeg
In a large bowl, use a whisk (or hand-mixer) and beat egg whites with the cream of tartar until they are stiff, but not dry.
In another bowl, whisk yolks with two teaspoons brandy or rum, powdered sugar, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves until smooth thoroughly mixed. Carefully fold the yolk mixture into egg whites, taking care not to deflate them. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes (the flavor improves if you give it 24 hours).
To make cocktails, warm milk in a two-quart saucepan over medium heat just until tiny bubbles begin to appear along the sides of the pan. Meanwhile, fill a number of eight-ounce mugs with boiling water. When the mugs are warm, discard the water. To each warmed mug add two heaping tablespoons of batter, one dash of bitters, one ounce of brandy or rum and 1/2-ounce bourbon. Stir well. Fill each mug 3/4 of the way full with hot milk, stir briefly and float a dollop of batter on the top of the drink. Garnish with fresh nutmeg.
Pro tip: Leftover batter can be frozen in an airtight container for several weeks. Since the batter remains scoopable even when frozen, you can use it directly from the freezer. Just scoop directly from the container with a measuring spoon, adding three tablespoons of batter to each glass and foregoing the float on top.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.