All the nog that's fit (and some that's frankly unfit) to drink. Photograph by Erik Uecke
Eggnog is a holiday favorite—especially when spiked with bourbon—but it’s tough to whip up on the fly. Options for a fresh, ready-made substitute aren’t the problem; you can’t swing a Santa hat in a supermarket dairy section right now without encountering at least one brand, if not five. But which to choose—or, more important, to avoid? We taste-tested 17 store-bought varieties, from the classic to the organic to the dairy-free, and added a finger of Maker’s Mark when the product was decent enough to merit depleting our precious whiskey supply. After recovering from the ravages of our sugary, bourbon-fueled hangovers, we concluded that there’s a lot of heinous nog out there, but also some standouts and unexpected winners.
Out of all the eggnogs we sampled, our favorite came from Trickling Springs Creamery ($5.25 at Smucker Farms of Lancaster County), made with milk from grass-fed Pennsylvania cows. A smoky nose reminiscent of holiday ham was a bit odd, but odder still was how appetizing we found it. Shake this rich, creamy treat with bourbon, and you’ll have a perfect party cocktail. If you’re planning on stocking up for a holiday shindig, call Smucker Farms and place an order before noon on Wednesday to pick up on Friday, or check the Trickling Springs Web site for other retailers and farm markets.
Equally rich is Southern Comfort Traditional Eggnog ($3.69 from Safeway), from the same folks responsible for That One Night in College. No, there’s no family-owned farm to feel good about (or ingredients—a half-cup serving packs 200 calories and 9 grams of fat). But SoCo puts out a satisfying nog with the consistency and taste of melted French vanilla ice cream. Again, a shake over ice with booze does nothing but good (unless you’re in college).
Organic Valley Eggnog ($5.59 at Yes! Organic Market) is less rich, and the most refreshing option among those we sampled. It’s no lighter in fat and calories than your average nog—at 180 calories and 9 grams of fat per half-cup serving—but the flavor from organic milk and eggs and Fair Trade cane sugar and spices is brighter than other commercial nogs, which are often filled with artificial sweeteners and preservatives.
Whole Foods’ 365 Egg Nog also won points for a lighter take, but it’s the worst of the best, smelling exactly like Elmers glue.
Eggnog packaging is pretty jolly (holly! snow!), so bad eggnog is like opening a potentially awesome present only to discover that it smells like old cheese and should be thrown away immediately. First up in this category is, we regret, Trader Joe’s Premium Egg Nog. A smiling snow cow on the container belies the thick, yellow liquid that tastes like heavy cream tainted with Brie. Perhaps it’s the high butterfat content of commercial nog (mandated by the FDA at 6 percent), but the strange fromage funk is also especially strong in both the Lewes Dairy Egg Nog and Farmland’s Egg Nog from Balducci’s (hint: Balducci's carries a full line of Trickling Springs milks, so you could make your own). The absence of prominent spices in all three results in something more like an eggnog base than a finished drink. Sadly it would take a bottle of good booze to drown out the off smells and flavors, and why waste the whiskey?
Turkey Hill Egg Nog, its packaging alleges, is “inspired by a family recipe of milk, cream, and eggs.” We’re guessing the original Lancaster clan didn’t add corn syrup, guar gum, and dextrose to the formula, and there’s no way its nog was as chemical-tasting as the one we bought. Giant Brand Egg Nog also suffers from a plastic-y flavor (if you’re stuck with Giant brand, go with the light version, which is surprisingly more palatable). Shenandoah Pride from CVS is also among the chemical crew, though the flavor, which recalls butterscotch candies from Grandma’s glass dish, could at least induce nostalgia.
Out of the diet-conscious group, low-fat Horizon Organic Eggnog is astonishingly weird—it smells and tastes like bubblegum—despite the organic ingredients. Less surprising is super-watery Silk Nog. There’s “not a smidgen of saturated fat or cholesterol,” but unfortunately, those are two of the things crucial to making great eggnog. Bourbon did improve it somewhat, because, as one tester pointed out, “eggnog-flavored booze is a little better than eggnog-flavored water.”
The Ugly Christmas Sweaters
Like their clothing counterparts, these eggnogs look awful, but there's something kind of great about them (when experienced in small doses). Light nog seems as bad as any low-fat version of purposely rich items, but Lucerne Light Eggnog ($2.79 from Safeway) is a nice balance of sweet and spicy, and is more refreshing than the über-rich nogs. As a taster said, “If I were into light eggnog, this would hit the spot.”
So Delicious Coconut Milk Nog ($2.99 at Yes! Organic Market) is immediately suspect as a dairy-free, tropical knockoff. But it’s Christmas on the beach with this piña-colada-esque drink. Mixed with rum, it becomes, in fact, so delicious. Coconut nog is also one of the lightest options, with only 90 calories and 3 grams of fat per half cup.
Lactaid Eggnog ($2.99 at Giant) isn’t any better for you than regular eggnog (unless you’re lactose-challenged, in which case it’s awesome). Given that the package’s selling point is the stuff is “easy to digest,” you wouldn’t expect much pizzazz. But Lactaid nog has a pleasant, sweet taste, similar to crème Anglaise. Yes, you may find this nog at a nursing home holiday mixer. But as we discovered, nothing says holiday spirit like a cold glass of Lactaid and whiskey.