Who Let the 'Nogs Out?



My husband, Phil, and I had been dating for almost a year when he asked: “What do you think of eggnog?” My thoroughly flummoxed reply: “I don’t.” 

The drink I knew from holiday parties came from a carton and was a clammy concoction of sugar, eggs, and cream added to every headache-inducing liquor known to man. Not quite custard and not quite milk, everything about it seemed feeble and drab.

We were in the Waterfront Ale House, a tiny bar on Atlantic Avenue in Cobble Hill, which has since moved to Manhattan. It turned out that Sam Barbieri, the Culinary Institute of America–trained owner of the bar, made some serious eggnog—it’s actually called Sam’s Serious Eggnog—and Phil thought I should try it. Phil, actually, had bartended for Sam for extra income when he was finishing up graduate school and while he owned a bookstore in Carroll Gardens. (Eventually, we all became close. Three years after I first tried Sam’s eggnog, he attended our wedding, and he hosted the gathering after Phil’s memorial service in 2007.)

The first thing I noticed about Sam’s Serious—which has been frequently dubbed one of the best, if not the best, in New York City—was the aroma of the alcohol and spices: fresh cinnamon, clove, allspice, and nutmeg. Served over ice, the consistency was perfect, not too thin or thick. The potent blow of the two rums, bourbon, and cognac was cooled and mellowed by the ice and richness of the ’nog. In turn, the alcohol cut into the base’s cloying density. 

It was paradigm-shifting. Eggnog is a libation that typically falls into categories like those I saw in a New York magazine ’nog-rating round-up: “Surprisingly Good” (Do you really want to drink anything whose top category assumes any possible goodness must be a surprise?), “Only Mildly Offensive,” “Pretty Darn Awful,” and “Singularly Hideous.” New York liked Sam’s version so much they included his tips on how to doctor up the better-rated prefab bases. 

I caught up with Sam recently in his Kips Bay location on Second Avenue, and he shared some insights into his process, which is now handled by an upstate dairy that mixes and pasteurizes his recipe’s base in bulk, to which he adds the alcohol, working in batches that produce up to 90 bottles at a time.

He typically turns out 1,200 bottles each year. “A driver who will only tell me he’s picking it up for someone on the East End—won’t tell me anything else, pays in cash—comes to the bar every year to pick up 30 to 60 bottles,” he said.

Never entirely sure myself what was in eggnog, Sam’s or otherwise—and for the glory of participatory journalism—I grabbed the opportunity to attempt to make some myself for this issue of EAST.

Deciding to use a personalized version of Sam’s recipe, my first choice was to cut it in half, since as of this writing it’s only October and not quite Yuletide (despite some hopeful store displays). One of Sam’s recommendations is to let the spices infuse the alcohol before mixing it into the ’nog. I used a dark rum I had on the bar, opted out of the other liquors, poured some into a ramekin, and added the spices before I started to cook.

I used a tad less sugar by choice, and added vanilla, because I love vanilla. I whisked the vanilla, sugar, eggs, and most of the half-and-half together in a bowl, set it over simmering water in a double boiler, then whisked . . . and whisked . . . and whisked some more. Finally, it thickened, and I took it off the heat. Heavy cream is added to cool it all down once it comes off the stove; holding back on the cream until after heating also makes it easier to determine when it has thickened properly (which is also how to tell if the eggs have cooked).

Purists may note a problem here. Most recipes call for separating the eggs and whisking in the whites after cooking. Sam, however, had told me that after years of following those traditional instructions, he once forgot to separate the eggs, and it was fine.

Even though my take turned out decadent and delicious, there are two things I would change when I make it again for Christmas—and I will!  Adding the vanilla before it went into the double boiler could have slowed the thickening; I would definitely add it again, but after cooking. Also, I may have kept it on the heat and whisked it more than needed.

This slightly improvised version turned to have the taste and consistency similar to a thin crème brulée. The alcohol and ice thinned it further, making it pleasant and easy to drink. Making eggnog is definitely worth attempting at home. If you want “Serious” eggnog, however, you should stop by the Waterfront, find the person who is importing those bottles to the East End, or send your own driver (and cash).  • 



2 tsp. freshly grated

¼ tsp. ground cinnamon

¼ tsp. ground allspice

Pinch ground cloves

4 oz. dark rum

2 oz. 151 rum

1 oz. brandy

2 oz. bourbon

4 whole eggs

¾ Cup granulated sugar

2 Cups half-and-half

1 Cup heavy cream

In a bowl, mix the spices with liquors and let sit to infuse for up to an hour. After the liquor has infused, whisk together eggs, sugar, and 1½ cups half-and-half in a large stainless-steel bowl. Working over a double boiler of simmering water, heat the egg mixture, whisking constantly, just until it starts to thicken. Remove from heat immediately and add the cold heavy cream and remaining half-and-half to cool the mixture and stop the cooking. Blend in the liquor and spice mixture. Garnish with additional freshly grated nutmeg. Refrigerate, and if serving warm, only heat the portion you will be using immediately.
Jennifer Landes