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
This pale excuse for a nog—made with organic soy milk (rather than the traditional milk or cream), evaporated cane juice, and sea salt—was almost unanimously dismissed as "thin," "watery and rancid," "chalky," "soy milk gone wrong," "very tofu/vegan/new age," and "not for adults." The consensus was that Silk Nog "doesn't taste remotely like eggnog." The carton warns that Silk Nog should not be used as infant formula (for that person who might put nog in their baby's bottle). Perhaps it should also come with an additional warning for adults: "Should not be passed off as nog, except in cases of extreme lactose intolerance."
Mountain Dairy Low-Fat Eggnog
$3.49 (1 quart) at Ralphs
Average total score: 3
Average score sans alcohol: 2.5
Average score with alcohol: 3.5
If we had judged the nogs by their covers, this one would not fare well. The plastic packaging and design-free label looks cheap, and the ingredients (which include high-fructose corn syrup, "egg base," and guar gum) are artificial. Looks did not deceive: One participant described this nog as tasting "more like Pepto-Bismol, less like eggnog"; another likened it to "semigloss/eggshell," noting that it "would make Sherwin Williams proud." Another tester suggested that Mountain Dairy market the nog with the slogan, "Real Imitation Eggnog Flavor!" while yet another warned that it was "unnaturally yellow." A lone objector celebrated this nog as "Tasterrific!"
Horizon Organic Low-Fat Eggnog
$3.19 (1 quart) at Whole Foods
Average total score: 3.45
Average score sans alcohol: 4.9
Average score with alcohol: 2
I admit I am a sucker for the smiling cow on the Horizon carton. Like a witch on a broomstick, he flies on a candy cane over the earth, spreading organic holiday cheer. But several tasters remained unmoved, describing this nog as "rancid," "headache-inducing," and "like thick canned milk." On the other hand, several of my guinea pigs remarked favorably on its "milkshakelike" qualities and enjoyed its "nutty, full" flavor while one guest praised this nog's "buttery goodness," exclaiming, "That's some fine nog!"
Rockview Farms Organic Eggnog
$2.69 (1 quart) at Trader Joe's
Average total score: 3.5
Average score sans alcohol: 3.25
Average score with alcohol: 3.75
Rockview's nog, like the Silk Nog and the Horizon version, boasts fancy organic ingredients such as organic cane sugar, organic cream, and organic nonfat milk solids. The natural, wholesome ingredients may have accounted for this nog's "complex, lighter" taste. As one participant declared: "thick and creamy, tastes like an eggnog should." It was also noted was that this nog could not hold its liquor: "The liquor really screams out," exclaimed one taster. Still, when it comes to nog, there's no pleasing everyone: Several panelists found this nog "medicinal," and one described it as "middle of the road—the Bryan Adams of eggnog."
Organic Valley Organic Eggnog
$3.49 (1 quart) at Whole Foods
Average total score: 4.5
Average score sans alcohol: 6.25
Average score with alcohol: 2.75
The only nog to receive a 10 from one of the tasters, this nog skewed higher (I can only deduce) because the group sampled it first. When we began, we had no idea just how bad the aftertaste of numerous eggnog samples would eventually get—despite the many bottles of Pellegrino and a holiday spiral-cut ham that served as palette cleansers. Despite its initially strong showing—comments included "thick and rich, well-balanced; a winner in the nonalcohol category" and "a good heavy nog, nice bouquet"—Organic Valley was described in Round 2 as "melted vanilla ice cream diluted with water," "jaw-droppingly bad," and "so fluffy it's hard to swallow." One participant didn't think it resembled nog but liked it nonetheless: "Tastes like good salad dressing!"
Alta Dena Holiday Eggnog
$4.99 (half-gallon) at Whole Foods
Average total score: 4.6
Average score sans alcohol: 5.75
Average score with alcohol: 3.5
Alta Dena calls their product "one of the best-tasting eggnogs anywhere," and their boasting is not unfounded. The only eggnog made with ginger, Alta Dena also adds tapioca flour and cinnamon to achieve its "daring and delightful," "creamy and delicious" flavor, which several participants described as "nutty." Not everyone agreed, however. Some disparaged its "puddinglike" texture, along with its "perfumey" and "metallic" "bad aftertaste." One alcohol-happy taster simply stated: "Booze! Yeah!!! Dude …"
Grandma's Cookbook Homemade Eggnog (uncooked, low-carb)
$3.99 (half-gallon) for Carb-Countdown Dairy Beverage (plus the additional cost of eggs, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, brandy, rum, and whipping cream)
Average total score: 6.25 (Round 2 only)
There are numerous eggnog recipes available online. This one shows up as the first Google hit when using the search term "eggnog" and comes from texascooking.com ("Your Source for Southwestern Cooking"). Still a bit carb-conscious after a recent diet experiment, I decided to reduce the carbs in this homemade version. After the panel concluded, I tasted Carb-Countdown (which glowed white, like typing paper) by itself, and it became clear that had I used the whole milk the recipe called for, this homemade concoction would have taken the prize. Sorry, Grandma. Nonetheless, this uncooked concoction (see this safety warning on using raw eggs in your eggnog) still far exceeded the store-bought versions with its "delicious hazelnut flavor that holds the liquor quite nicely." Said one panelist, "I'd serve this to company." Two others described it as "yum yum vanilla bean ice cream," and a third rejoiced, "Finally, a nog to sing about!" But a few detractors denounced the nog as "liquid sulfur" and likened it to "Kaopectate." One fussy guest who enjoyed the beverage overall caviled, "not enough nutmeg."
Epicurious Eggnog (cooked)
See ingredients for pricing information
Average total score: 6.75 (Round 2 only)
Epicurious did not disappoint with its homemade eggnog, a potent combination of milk, eggs, sugar, cream, and vanilla, along with brandy (I used Raynal Imported French Brandy, $9.99 at Trader Joe's) and bourbon (Knob Creek, $19.99 at Trader Joe's). This recipe took about 30 minutes to prepare, and though I skipped the step that involved straining the "custard through a fine-meshed sieve" (as my kitchen was unequipped with said sieve), judges found this beverage "deliciously bourbony, not too thick," "creamy, sweet, and spicy," and "bold and beautiful." In the end, the Epicurious nog was commended as "excellent for forgetting your sorrows and/or relatives" and was several guests' (as well as my own) favorite.
Eggnog is not likely to foster good will, nor holiday cheer amongst your guests. If you simply must nog, go homemade. There is no substitute.