Most of us, at some point in our years of holiday revelry, have tossed back a frothy cup of the sweet and spicy drink known as eggnog. Made with milk, cream, eggs, and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, the drink is also frequently blended with bourbon, rum, or brandy to encourage mingling among office holiday-party attendees or to take the edge off family holiday gatherings. Traditional homemade eggnogs often feature raw eggs, and it is perhaps due to public fears of salmonella that we can now choose among numerous varieties of pasteurized nogs—from low-fat to organic to soy-milk-based—at the local supermarket.
Recently, I set out with 12 friends on a 70-degree Los Angeles winter evening to answer the question that's been haunting me (and no doubt you as well) for many holiday seasons: What's the top store-bought nog? And how do these nogs compare with homemade? (These are not easy questions to answer, I discovered, as eggnog is almost as universally loathed as the dreaded holiday fruitcake.)
But before we answer, let us first ask the real question: What exactly is nog? There is some debate as to the origins of the beverage. Most scholars agree that eggnog's origins can be traced to the posset (read: hot milk drink) family of medicinal punches popular in the Middle Ages. As for the refreshment's odd-sounding name, one school of thought suggests that it is a conflation of egg-and-grog (Grog, first created in the mid-1700s by a British admiral, was a mixture of water, rum, citrus, and spices.) Another theory is that eggnog means, literally, "egg in a cup,"—in 17th-century England, the word "noggin" was used to describe both the "small, wooden, carved mug" in which ale was served, as well as the ale itself. Eggnog may also owe something to the French drink called lait de poule, (a "mixture of egg yolks, milk, and sugar" that 19th-century Americans supposedly adopted, adding brandy), as well as a tasty-sounding German biersuppe (which still exists today) made with "beer, sugar, egg yolks, lemon rind, and cinnamon, served with fried black bread croutons, cooked (plumped) raisins, and currants."
But the nogs of yore, my friends and I quickly discovered, are a far cry from today's incarnations. By the end of the evening, I think I succeeded in weaning all my guests from a thirst for this sweet and creamy holiday drink, perhaps for life. Despite the frequent comparisons to Pepto-Bismol and similar gastrointestinal medicines, my tasters left with sour stomachs—ironic, given that eggnog is supposed to be raised in a toast to one's good health.
The Nog Tasting
We sampled six store-bought eggnogs—Organic Valley, Alta Dena, Horizon Organic, Rockview Farms, and Silk Soy Nog—purchased from three local Los Angeles grocery chains: Ralphs, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's. Additionally, we tested two types of homemade nogs: cooked and uncooked, with recipes chosen from a Google search and from Epicurious, a favorite recipe Web site of mine. We held two rounds of nog tasting, one alcoholic and one nonalcoholic. Since both homemade recipes included alcohol as primary ingredients, I felt it best to exclude these from the first round. For Round 2, I added an equal amount of bourbon (approximately 1 ounce of Knob Creek) to each of the store-bought versions and tossed the homemade versions into fray.
The glasses of eggnog were unlabeled, so participants did not know which nog they were sampling.
The various nogs were scored on scale of one to 10, with 10 indicating an outstanding nog achievement and one representing a dismal and/or nauseating failure. But a 10 was a rarity. As one participant pointed out: "For me, a four out of 10 is as good as nog really gets."
There were a few incidents in which nog was immediately spit out, but there was, thankfully, no vomiting.
The Results (From Worst to Best)
Surprisingly, scores declined precipitously once alcohol was added. They were also nearly inversely proportional to the amount of eggnog consumed. For example, a nog described as "yummy, milky, malty-sweet, spicy," in Round 1 was described by the same person in Round 2 as "awful, watery, salty, awful." Apparently, eggnog is not a drink that goes down more smoothly as you consume more (like, say, Pabst Blue Ribbon). Plus, for some reason the alcohol also failed to blend harmoniously with the store-bought versions—nog with alcohol added had to be stirred before each gulp.
Low-fat made with organic soy milk
$4.99 (half-gallon) at Whole Foods
Average total score: 2.1
Average score sans alcohol: 2.3
Average score with alcohol: 1.97