Recipes: For Midwesterners, It Isn’t Winter Without a Tom and Jerry
Come the first weekend in December, the staff of the 85-year-old Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee engage in a seasonal ritual: They cart eggs, rum, brandy, a punch bowl and mugs up a flight of stairs and assemble a mise en place devoted to one drink, and one drink only.
“We have a bartender up there and that’s all they do, make Tom and Jerrys,” says owner John Dye.
During blustery Midwestern winters, Tom and Jerrys are a holiday staple. Mugs of velvety egg batter are spiked with hot rum and brandy, then topped with hot water or milk and finished with baking spices such as cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. However, the intricacies of making them from scratch can require time, space and devotion, which compelled Dye to open Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge’s Tom and Jerry Room about a decade ago.
“Our last rebuild was in 1971, and we’re not dealing with custom cocktail equipment, so we couldn’t quite figure out how to serve them from behind the bar,” Dye said. “They’re kind of messy. So, we open up this little room upstairs.”
Throughout the month of December, guests buy tickets for drinks that are made to order in bespoke mugs custom designed for that year’s run. Dye reckons the bar sells close to a thousand Tom and Jerrys each season.
“Around here, a lot of bars serve them, as do supper clubs and families. It’s a cool tradition,” said Dye. “They’re really rich, and they taste like your memory of Christmas.”
Here’s everything to know about this seasonal sipper.
What’s in a Tom and Jerry?
With its blend of creamy, nap-inducing ingredients, the Tom and Jerry sounds suspiciously like egg nog under another name. And while the two are cousins, Tom and Jerry has some key distinctions.
“Egg nog is traditionally made with whole eggs. Tom and Jerry is more refined, separating the egg yolks from the whites and whipping the whites, giving it a fluffier texture,” explains Jason Asher, founding partner and vice president of beverage at Barter & Shake, which runs the Phoenix bar Grey Hen Rx at Century Grand. The bar pours the drink from the day after Thanksgiving into December. “Also, Tom and Jerry is served hot, and egg nog is [often] served cold.”
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Both egg nog and the Tom and Jerry share a lineage with egg flip, a complex colonial-era libation of warmed ale, rum, eggs, cream, molasses and nutmeg, heated with a hot fire poker and served from pitchers. But while the Tom and Jerry also uses rum, Cognac is part of its base, too. Also, the egg whites are whipped into peaks, while the yolks are creamed with sugar and sometimes rum. Then, they are recombined for a silky batter, one that Midwesterners can purchase by the tub in local stores during the holidays. At bars such as Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge and Grey Hen Rx, that batter is made fresh each day.
What’s the History of the Tom and Jerry?
Like many mixed drinks born in the 1800s, the precise origin of the Tom and Jerry is murky. The most prevalent creation myth is that the drink was created by journalist Pierce Egan in tandem with the release of his 1821 book, Life in London, or The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorne Esq. and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom. “It’s the drink’s most likely origin story,” says Asher.
Life in London spawned a play of the same name, which traveled to the United States in 1823; decades later, a recipe for Tom and Jerry appeared in pioneering bartender Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bar-Tender’s Guide.
By the mid-20th century, ceramic mug-and-bowl sets bearing the drink’s name were a seasonal fixture in homes throughout the upper Midwest. “Each family seems to have their own set of Tom and Jerry bowls,” says Dye.
Grey Hen Rx debuted their Tom and Jerry in 2021, decanting the drink into gilded forest-green mugs with ornate gold lettering. “We began serving this drink because our friend, Tony Abou-Ganim, would tell stories about his aunt who owned a bar in Michigan that served it every winter,” says Asher. “We stick to the classic recipe.”
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When Should I Drink a Tom and Jerry?
At EightyMain, guests hoping to score a Tom and Jerry need to watch the sky—the restaurant only serves them when it snows. “It could be one snowflake, it could be a complete blizzard, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to have the batter ready,” says Johnson, who was first introduced to the cocktail at the renowned Boston bar Drink in the early 2000s. “A Tom and Jerry is like a very squishy marshmallow on top of boozy, warm milk. That’s kind of how we play it, as a really nice winter spiced scented meringue on top of a base spirit.”
Johnson says the restaurant found its Tom and Jerry set on eBay, where some vintage bowls and mugs go for hundreds of dollars or more.
“[The drink] doesn’t sell until we make one of them and people are like, ‘What was that?’ The conversation starts flowing and before you know it, the room is full of Tom and Jerry,” he said. “We like to see everyone with these goofy meringue moustaches. People take pictures, and it becomes this strange memory of an obscure drink, only when it snows, in an obscure location.”
How to Make a Tom and Jerry Cocktail
Recipe by Jacy Topps
- 1 ounce dark rum
- 1 ounce Cognac or brandy
- 1-2 tablespoons Tom & Jerry batter*
- 5 ounces whole milk, hot
- Nutmeg, freshly grated, for garnish
- Ground allspice, for garnish
Add the rum, Cognac and batter to a coffee mug or Tom & Jerry cup. Next, slowly top with hot milk, stirring constantly. Drink should be smooth and foamy. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg and ground allspice.
*Tom and Jerry Batter
Separate 3 egg yolks and whites and set aside. In a bowl, whip the egg whites with ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. In a separate bowl, beat the yolks with 1 cup of sugar, ½ ounce Jamaican dark rum and ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract. When the yolk mixture is completely combined, gently fold it into the egg white mixture. Keep refrigerated.
At Grey Hen Rx, bartenders use Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaican Rum and Remy Martin 1738 Cognac to spike the drink, while Bryant’s uses Gosling’s Dark Rum and Korbel brandy.
In the Delhi, New York, restaurant EightyMain, in New York’s Catskill Mountains, chef-owner Will Johnson uses Banks 5 Island Rum but swaps out brandy for a rotating cast of amari. “It’s a little bit of a twist, brings the alcohol content down and changes the flavor profile,” explains Johnson. Amari can introduce notes of citrus, menthol, or root bark, depending on which they use, he said. “Angostura has an amaro that works really well, and Averna works great as well.”
Last Updated: November 1, 2023