The Midwestern Drink That’s Making a Comeback

published Dec 16, 2016
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Every year as the weather grows cold, small red, white, and green plastic tubs suddenly line the shelves of grocery stores in the upper Midwest. Anyone not from the area might read the labels with total confusion: “Tom and Jerry Batter,” they say, often surrounded by drawings of holly leaves and snowy winter scenes. But this batter isn’t for cake, and it has nothing to do with the cartoon cat and mouse — it’s the base for a classic punch.

What Is the Tom & Jerry?

The Tom and Jerry thrives in the cold, snowy states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, where the winter months can take their toll. The rich, silky punch is made using a two-part process. First, you make (or buy) the batter. Whip egg whites to create a meringue-like texture, and fold into a mixture of the yolks and spices like cinnamon and allspice.

Then, you make a punch with brandy, rum, and warm milk. To serve, scoop the batter into a mug, top with warm punch, and gently stir. The result combines the childlike pleasure of a just-baked Christmas cookie with the distinctly adult perk of booze.

The Muddled Origins of the Tom & Jerry

The origins of the beloved drink are muddled, with two competing narratives. The first claims that British author Pierce Egan invented the drink in the early 19th century to promote his book, Life in London; or The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq. and His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom.

The other well-known story, that famed New York bartender Jerry Thomas invented the Tom and Jerry in 1847, might sound more plausible at first — except that the recipe has been documented in the United States as far back as the 1820s.

More likely is that Thomas, who loved the frothy mix of egg, spirits, and spices, popularized the recipe and helped it gain widespread recognition, which it enjoyed through the mid-20th century. The drink was so popular, in fact, that Tom and Jerry punch sets, emblazoned with the drink’s name and often some seasonal imagery, were widely available. And although they’re becoming scarcer every year, it’s still possible to snag a vintage set online or in a thrift store.

The Tom & Jerry Comeback

In the mid-20th century, the drink’s popularity inexplicably declined, to the point where the majority of the country has never even heard of the Tom and Jerry, let alone tried it. But the last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in classic cocktails, including this holiday gem.

Places like Miller’s Pub in Chicago, Arnaud’s in New Orleans, and Steel & Rye outside of Boston all serve Tom and Jerrys when winter sets in. And then, of course, there’s Tom and Jerry’s in New York, where dozens of the vintage punch bowl sets line the back of the bar. Don’t go there expecting to get a mugful, though — they usually only serve the drink one night a year.

H. Joseph Ehrmann, proprietor of San Francisco’s Elixir, was an early reviver. He started serving the classic punch over a decade ago because, he says, it represented “the kind of tradition and environment I wanted to instill into Elixir.” Ehrmann also adds that his customers come in specifically for Tom and Jerrys year after year.

And with good reason: Cozied up on a bar stool while holiday shoppers bustle past outside, or gathered around a steaming pot in a crowded kitchen, the Tom and Jerry is the perfect cold-weather drink.

Try Our Recipe: Tom & Jerry

Have you tried (or made) a Tom and Jerry?