Tom and Jerry: The Rise and Fall and Rise of a Holiday Classic

By Neat Pour Staff |

Tis’ the season to pull out the punchbowls and mix up the eggnog. Here, at Neat Pour, we love da ‘nog also, but what really gets us excited is eggnog’s hot cousin, the Tom and Jerry. Over two centuries old, the mixture of eggs, sugars, spices, and booze is served warm and guaranteed to impress holiday guests. If revelers are not wowed by taste, the libation’s history is a story worthy of Dickens.

At it’s core, the Tom & Jerry is comprised of a rich batter, essentially akin to a whipped eggnog combined with cognac and/or rum and hot water. Think about drinking hot, sugary pancake batter. Some people use whole milk instead of water, but the recipe has stayed relatively unchanged over the years—the backstory has not.

Golden Age bartending guru, Jerry Thomas successfully propagated the myth that the drink was his creation (and named after his pet white mice)—more on that later. However, the true creator of the Tom and Jerry was British writer Pierce Egan. In 1821, Egan’s book, Life in London or, the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their rambles and sprees through the Metropolis was tearing up the Georgian literary charts. The wordy title was a fancy way to describe a slangy satire of three men on a prolonged bender in Regency London–and the locals loved it. In fact, the book proved so popular that Egan sold the coveted theatrical rights; a stage adaptation titled Tom and Jerry, or Life in London was the talk of London’s West End the same year. Fun fact: The title was a double-entendre; Tom and Jerry was an old English phrase for hitting the town hard. The work also popularized the phrase “three sheets to the wind.”

Despite the success, Egan was not a man to rest on his laurels. The author continued hustling. He learned that Londoners were using his characters’ fictional adventures as a guidebook to the city’s nightlife and dreamt up the perfect marketing tie-in. He created one of history’s first branded drink specials, the Tom and Jerry.

Tom & Jerry larking at a masquerade supper at the Opera House (Isaac Richard & George Cruickshank, 1821)

However, Egan’s early cross-marketing was nothing compared to the self promotion of the “Professor,” Jerry Thomas. Despite the preceding evidence to the contrary, Thomas proudly professed to have created the libation, himself, in 1847. No stranger to the press, Thomas offered several interviews about the origins, the most famous being the recounting in Englishman Alan Dale’s 1885 homage to America, Jonathon’s Home. In that telling, Thomas first notes that his youth was spent at sea around California and then recounts that on one incident a man requested of him a drink of egg beaten with sugar. Naturally, Thomas thought the concoction would be better with brandy. Thomas told his guest, “If you’ll only bear with me for five minutes, I’ll fix you a drink that’ll do your heartstrings good.” Within the allotted timeframe, the Tom and Jerry was born—according to the fabricated legend.

Thomas alleged that the success of “his” hot drink was directly responsible for the invention of several of his other classics including the Blue Blazer, Buck and Brick, and Lamb’s-Wool. “After the invention of the ‘Tom and Jerry,’ I got inspired and had large confidence in myself,” he told Dale. “Men came to me when they wanted anything extra good, and I felt my obligations to be sacred, and that I had incurred responsibilities which made it necessary for me to go on doing well.”

Thomas at work on a Blue Blazer

What is fact is that Thomas was one hell of a hype man and the drink blew up in popularity over the next 50 years. So, much so that dedicated ceramic punch bowl and mug sets became a common entertaining accessory across the United States. Due to the parallels to eggnog, not mention the seasonally appropriate heated nature, Tom and Jerry became the defacto holiday treat.

Warren Harding loved the battered brandy mixture and served them at White House Christmas parties. In 1931, Damon Runyon waxed poetic on the hot treat in his Dancing Dan’s Christmas. He wrote“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.” And, in the 1951 Billy Wilder classic, The Apartment, Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter keeps a bowl of Tom and Jerry batter in his fridge.

Like so many classic cocktails, the Tom and Jerry faded from public sight as the 20th century dripped away only to make a comeback during the much ballyhooed Cocktail Renaissance. Following a familiar road to revival, Audrey Saunders drew inspiration from Dale DeGroff, and made them a winter tradition at NYC’s trendsetting Pegu Club.

2017 James Bear Award winner, Arnaud’s French 75, traditionally serves the drink beginning on the first night that the bar is decorated for Christmas.“Life in London was pretty wild, but Jeremiah and his Corinthian friend would not be bored in New Orleans,” Head bartender Chris Hannah told Neat Pour. “That said, we love serving the Tom and Jerrys during the holidays. Regulars return annually for them, it’s become a tradition for staff and guests alike.”

Outside of craft cocktail destinations, the Tom and Jerry is still quite popular in Minnesota and Wisconsin today. Although, most hosts these days opt to use pre-made mixes such as Mrs. Bowen’s and Trader Vic’s.

Those special punch bowl sets have returned as vintage collectibles. Appealing to both millennial and interweb OG’s, the ceramic sets are common on Etsy and eBay. Prices range from a few dollars a mug to a few hundred dollars for a higher end, complete set. The drink has even made its way into pop culture gaining a vocal advocate in professional poker legend Phil Hellmuth.

However, you won’t truly understand until you try one for yourself. Check out Hannah’s recipe as well as Thomas’ unadulterated formula in his own words below.

Chris Hannah’s Tom and Jerry

Print Recipe
Tom & Jerry (Chris Hannah Specs)
  1. Separate the eggs. Reserve the yolks.
  2. Beat the egg whites until peaks form. Then, add 0.5 cup of the sugar and beat until peaks form again.
  3. Add the yolks to the mix and continue beating.
  4. Add the rest of the sugar and the vanilla. And, keep on beating until incorporated.
  5. Stir in the half and half.
  1. Pour 1.5 oz. of cognac (or whiskey) into your favorite seasonal mug (or official Tom & Jerry set).
  2. Pour in 3 oz. hot water.
  3. Spoon 2 oz. of the batter on top.
  4. Grat nutmeg on top.

Jerry Thomas’ ‘Original’ Tom and Jerry

Print Recipe
Tom and Jerry (Jerry Thomas Specs)
  1. Beat the white of the eggs to a stiff froth, and the yolks of the eggs until they are as thin as water, and then mix together and add the spice and the rum, thicken with sugar until the mixture attains the consistence of a light batter.
To Deal Out Tom and Jerry to Customers:
  1. Take a small bar glass and one table-spoonful of the above mixture, add one wine-glass brandy, and fill the glass with boiling water, grate a little nutmeg on top.
  2. Adepts at the bar, in serving the Tom and Jerry, sometimes adopt a mixture of 1/2 brandy, 1/4 Jamaican rum, 1/4 Santa Cruz rum, instead of brandy plain. This compound is normally mixed and kept in a bottle, and a wine-glassful is used to each tumbler of Tom and Jerry.
  3. N.B. -- A tea-spoonful of cream of tartar, or about as much carbonate of soda as you can get on a dime, will prevent sugar from settling to the bottom of the mixture.
  4. This drink is sometimes called the Copenhagen and sometimes called the Jerry Thomas.
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