Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: Tom & Jerry

As the temperatures drop, enjoy the warm holiday beverage courtesy of Drafthouse Beverage Director Bill Norris. 

NOW one time it comes on Christmas, and in fact it is the evening before Christmas, and I am in Good Time Charley Bernstein's little speakeasy in West Forty-seventh Street, wishing Charley a Merry Christmas and having a few hot Tom and Jerrys with him. This hot Tom and Jerry is an old time drink that is once used by one and all in this country to celebrate Christmas with, and in fact it is once so popular that many people think Christmas is invented only to furnish an excuse for hot Tom and Jerry, although of course this is by no means true. But anybody will tell you that there is nothing that brings out the true holiday spirit like hot Tom and Jerry, and I hear that since Tom and Jerry goes out of style in the United States, the holiday spirit is never quite the same.
--Damon Run, “Dancing Dan’s Christmas”

As we get deeper into the season of holiday parties and office gatherings, we hit the age old conundrum of the host: how does he enjoy his own festivities or mingle with her guests if chained to the bar in order to make cocktails that are delicious and well proportioned?The solution is simple, and older than America, and it is to offer guests something communal. A bowl of punch perhaps or a steamy, aromatic pot of Gluhwein or Wassail would suit the season. There is always Egg Nogg, which when made from scratch bears no resemblance to the glutinous mess available on every grocery store shelf, and then, of course, there is Tom & Jerry, a drink that was once a wintertime staple in taverns and saloons across America, but that has sadly faded into obscurity, save for a few bastions of cocktail geekdom and some lingering purists in the Great Lakes region and the Upper Midwest.

Tom & Jerry requires some pre-gathering labor, and some fussing about with eggs, and for the truly obsessed, some mucking about on eBay, but when compounded well and served properly, it is a bone warming seasonal treat, redolent of baking spices and rum, with that certain ineffable greatness that makes for tradition. Make Tom & Jerry one year for your gathering, and you will probably have to offer it in subsequent seasons.

Mr. Thomas, I Presume?

For many, many years, the Tom & Jerry was credited to Jerry Thomas, author of the first ever bartender’s guide and a well known self promoter. Thomas got this credit because he (loudly and often) told anyone who asked that he’d created the drink. To wit:

One day in...1847 a gentleman asked me to give him an egg beaten up in sugar. I prepared the article, and then…I thought to myself, ‘How beautiful the egg and sugar would be with Brandy to it!’  I ran to the gentleman and, says I, ‘If you’ll only bear with me for five minutes I’ll fix you up a drink that’ll do your heartstrings good.’ He wasn’t adverse to having the condition of his heartstrings improved, so back I went, mixed the egg and sugar, which I had beaten up into a kind of batter, with some brandy, then I poured in some hot water and stirred vigorously. The drink realized my expectations. It was the one thing I’d been dreaming of for months…I named the drink after myself, kinder familiarly: I had two white mice in those days, one of them I had called Tom and the other Jerry, so I combined the abbreviations in the drink, as Jeremiah P. Thomas would have sounded rather heavy, and that wouldn’t have done for a beverage.* 

Of course, Thomas’ boast was hogwash, as references to Tom & Jerry can be found dating back to at least 1827, three years before Thomas was born. But given his name and his affinity for the more theatrical side of the bar business, Thomas certainly promoted the drink far and wide, in his writing, in his press clippings and in his trend setting bars of the mid 1800s. By the mid 1860s, when winter first blew into town, almost any bar would set out the Tom & Jerry bowl until spring started to warm things up.

Tom & Jerry started to go out of fashion in the early part of the 1900s, really began to disappear during World War II, and by the 1960s it was almost extinct. Its decline is emblematic of societal and cultural changes that affected all aspects of American life, but especially bars, as they moved to mass produced, quickly executed cocktails made with off the shelf mixers and artificial ingredients, the very opposite of what compounding a Tom & Jerry requires.

Nogg? Not Nogg?

Tom & Jerry is best thought of as Egg Nogg’s hot cousin. While a properly made Egg Nogg was also a well known tipple by the middle of the 1860s, the primary difference between Tom & Jerry and Egg Nogg is serving temperature. With Egg Nogg, as Thomas notes in his book, “There is no heat used,” while Tom & Jerry gets its warming feel not only from a good stiff shot of booze (which it has in spades), but also from the addition of either hot water or, better, warm milk.

In addition to Tom and Jerry, Thomas’ book lists six Egg Nogg variations, all of which are far lighter in body and superior to the off shelf stuff you can buy at the 7-11 today. And, while he does list individual versions of some of the Noggs, the best of them are made in a big bowl, with enough for 15 or so servings ready to go when the drink is completed.

With Tom and Jerry, because of the heat element, you begin the process in a way that is similar to Egg Nogg, but instead of mixing it all up at once, you create a batter or “dope” that is kept on hand to be made into individual warm drinks a la minute. In a party setting, this allows your guests to mix their own drinks from a station in the kitchen (or elsewhere if you can keep warm milk in a crock pot or insulated carafe), which can be messy but is also great fun.

A Note on Ingredients: Booze

Almost all early Tom and Jerry recipes call for the “dope” to be made with a touch of “Jamaica Rum,” and the finished drink to be mixed with either Brandy or a mixture of Brandy and Rum. “Jamaica Rum” of the 1860s would have been aged and it would have been redolent of funk and hogo. A great choice here would be the Smith and Cross Navy Strength Rum but other aged rums will do as well.  If you can find it (and if you do, please buy me a bottle), the Inner Circle Green Dot from Australia would be perfect in this drink.

For the Brandy, make it Cognac and go with something in the VSOP range (VS if you’re on a budget). Pierre Ferrand 1840 “Original Formula” is a great choice here (and in all classic Cognac based drinks), as it was designed to mimic the flavor of the pre-phylloxera Cognacs that would have been commonly served in the mid 1800s. A high quality domestic brandy would also work, especially something from Germain Robin.

Thomas also specifies, “Adepts at the bar, in serving Tom & Jerry, sometimes adopt a mixture of ½ brandy, ¼ Jamaica rum, and ¼ Santa Cruz Rum, instead of brandy plain.” This is a very good idea, but there’s one glaring issue: Smith and Cross is an admirable approximation of the Jamaica Rum of Thomas’ time, but as David Wondrich has noted of Santa Cruz Rum, it’s “difficult to pin down exactly what the hell it was.” Wondrich suggests using Cruzan Estate Diamond, Mount Gay Eclipse or Angostura 1919 when Thomas calls for Santa Cruz rum, and I can vouch for the latter two.

For the purposes of Tom & Jerry, if you want to be considered adept at the bar, pre-mix your rum and brandy for quicker service. Leftovers can be stored pretty much forever in the liquor cabinet.

Milk or H20?

As noted above, Thomas’ claim to the drink involves him mixing it with hot water. By the end of the 1800s, the drink was more commonly mixed with hot milk, and that evolution is for the best. You can of course try both, but the Milk version of the thing has a fuller body and is much tastier. If you decide to use water, you can get more body in the drink by upping the sugar content in the batter.

A Note on Ingredients: The Dope’s Spices & The Garnish

Making Tom & Jerry batter requires the addition of ground spices and the drink is finished with a bit of ground nutmeg. You can use the pre-ground stuff moldering in the back of your pantry, but fresh ground will always be better. Break out the spice grinder and the microplane. It’s worth it.

A Note on Glassware and Ceremony

Tom & Jerry is a two step process. Prior to service, the batter or dope is mixed and kept at room temperature near to hand in a bowl. Then, when a Tom & Jerry is called for, the bartender adds a spoonful of the dope to a Tom & Jerry mug, hits it with a couple of ounces of rum and brandy, stirs in the hot milk, and grates a hit of fresh nutmeg over the top. These mug and bowl sets are easily found on eBay and in thrift stores, but are not remotely necessary.

The thing to keep in mind is the serving size. Tom & Jerry is a rich drink by any standard, and you want to keep the portion under control. That super-sized coffee mug from the early 90s is going to be far too large. Make sure you’re using a heat proof mug, and keep it in the 6-8oz range, and you should be fine. And, as with any warm drink, be sure to keep the glasses warm or rinse them with very hot water before serving. You don’t want a tepid Tom & Jerry.

For the dope, any appropriately sized bowl will do. But consider thrifting or buying the sets on-line. They’re a cool piece of Americana and can usually be had for under $40.

A Recipe:

Tom & Jerry “Dope”

To Be Prepared in Advance

12 Eggs, Separated
1-2 Pounds Sugar to Taste (I like the higher end)
1 oz Smith and Cross Navy Strength Rum or other Aged Rum
1 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon, preferably fresh
½ tsp. ground cloves, preferably fresh
½ teaspoon ground allspice, preferably fresh
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg, preferably fresh

Grind your spices if using fresh and combine and set aside.

In a bowl, beat the egg yolks well and gradually whisk in the sugar (adding a pinch of cream of tartar or baking soda can help the sugar stay in suspension in this mixture). When well combined, add the ground spices and the rum.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks and fold into the yolk mixture. Store in the refrigerator until 30 or 40 minutes before serving, but remove in time for the mixture to be at room temperature when you are ready to serve.

Tom & Jerry Cognac/Rum Mixture (makes 16 drinks, can be expanded or contracted)

16 oz Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac*
8 oz Smith and Cross Navy Strength Rum
8 oz Angostura 1919 Rum

Combine all in a clean glass container or bottle and mix well. Set aside for use.

Tom & Jerry Drinks

2 oz Cognac/Rum Mixture (or 1 oz Aged Rum and 1 oz Cognac)
1 TBL Tom & Jerry Dope
Warm Milk
Nutmeg for Garnish

Gently heat milk on the stove stop until it is very warm, but not boiling. You do not want the milk to form a skin or cook, but want it to be warm-hot. Think of the perfect temperature of a hot chocolate. For parties, a crock pot that can maintain a constant temperature is an excellent idea here. Alternatively, heat the milk to the required temperature and store in an insulated coffee pot for service.

Warm a heat proof mug of about 6-8 oz by rinsing with very hot water. Add the Dope and your spirits and stir in warm milk until the mixture is frothy. Garnish with a pinch of fresh grated nutmeg.


* Wondrich, David, Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar. (New York:  Perigree, 2007.) 132-133.


Read other entries in the series here. Read Bill's Cocktails With Mad Men series here.