A Nod to ’Nog: Love it or hate it, there’s no denying eggnog’s rich history

It’s one of those love-hate relationships. There’s no middle ground when you ask people their opinion of eggnog. “Even within the company there are people who are unwilling to help with taste tests,” said Deann Wernle, director of marketing for Dairy House, a St. Louis company that supplies ingredients – including flavoring for commercial eggnog – to the dairy industry. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m not the person to ask to taste that. I don’t like the stuff.’” “It’s a very rich drink,” said David Watson, a senior food scientist with Givaudan Flavors, whose U.S. dairy headquarters is in Bridgeton. “It’s not a middle-of-the-road drink, and any time you go to an extreme some people are going to be turned off and some people are going to love it.” John Spangler is the operations manager at Mid States Dairy in Hazelwood, which is owned by Schnucks Markets, Inc., and produces a combined 85,000 gallons annually of the Schnucks brand eggnog and Holiday Nog. (What’s the difference between eggnog and Holiday Nog? Eggnog must have a minimum 6 percent butterfat and a minimum 1 percent egg yolk by weight; Holiday Nog, which Spangler called a flavored milk product, has 2 percent butterfat and less than 1 percent egg yolk by weight.) Spangler said there are likely as many formulas for commercially produced eggnog as there are dairies. And nog-oisseurs are very brand-loyal. Donna Bent, spokesperson for Dierbergs, tallied up more than 10 products in stores this season, reflecting customer demands for distinct flavors and textures. In addition to Dierbergs’ Old Fashioned Eggnog, consumers may choose from lower-lactose, soy, organic and alcohol-imbued products as well as those carrying brand names such as Pevely Dairy and Oberweis. Like Dairy House, Givaudan provides dairies a liquid or a powder formula for flavoring their ’nog. Watson said Givaudan’s flavorings are added to the dairy’s mix, then the product is pasteurized (heated for safety reasons) and homogenized (the fat content is emulsified so the cream doesn’t rise to the top). Refrigerated, Prairie Farms eggnog has a life of 21 days, said Ed Mullins, a senior vice president at the dairy. It’s a far cry from the traditional, alcohol-laden concoction that conjures images of “A Christmas Carol.” Just about anybody can enjoy today’s mass-produced versions, but in Charles Dickens’ day it was a rare Londoner who saw eggs or milk. It became popular among the elite to drink a Christmas toast to health with eggnog, a blend of milk, eggs and brandy, Madeira or even sherry. The tradition eventually crossed the Atlantic to Jamestown, where frugal revelers used rum, which was cheaper and easier to get, thanks to Caribbean trade routes. Now it’s the preferred flavor. “We create the rum flavor using either natural or naturally and artificially derived ingredients,” Watson said. “Some eggnogs actually contain rum as part of the flavor, but at such a low level that it doesn’t show up on the ingredients list outside of ‘natural and artificial flavor.’” The alcohol-free version of this traditional treat apparently was born from an effort to share the tradition with convalescents and children. Perhaps from there came the idea to produce the commercial variety, a task Prairie Farms took on more than 40 years ago. Today’s producers must factor in regional preferences, paying particular attention to the eggnog’s consistency or thickness. “Some people experience the thickness as a taste,” Wernle said, citing a flavor profile test her company did where the chemical stabilizers that adjust the thickness were taken out. “People in the North and Northeast like it very thin,” she continued. “Southerners prefer thicker eggnog.” Missouri, of course, is somewhere in the middle. Accommodating these preferences explains why companies such as Dairy House begin internal eggnog sampling in June. Yes, June. Before fireworks there’s eggnog. Givaudan begins flavor production between mid-August and early September. Prairie Farms starts eggnog production the third week of October. So it isn’t your imagination: Eggnog is available earlier than it used to be. “Traditionally, eggnog was first produced a week or two before Thanksgiving, and we finished up just after Christmas,” Spangler said. “In my opinion, when retail stores started putting out Christmas displays earlier and earlier, then it followed that consumers thought about eggnog and wanted it earlier.” Eggnog still can be enjoyed the old-fashioned way rather than out of a carton. You can, of course, make a batch yourself. For those who are leery of raw eggs, The Ritz-Carlton’s executive chef, Anthony Cole, recommended using pasteurized whole egg products. Some local stores also carry eggs that have been pasteurized in the shell. Making eggnog yourself can be a labor-intensive process, however, so you may want to leave the work to the professionals. At The Grill at The Ritz-Carlton, customers during the holiday season will be treated to a cup of executive pastry chef Michael Peponis’ eggnog as a fond farewell after their meals.