Antebellum Eggnog in Cincinnati

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Joseph Mersman, writer of the journal that would become The Whiskey Merchant Diary.

One great local pre-Civil War diary we have is that of German immigrant Joseph Mersman. He had immigrated to Cinicnnati with thousands of other immigrants from his town in 1830. His diary gives us one of the few, and very detailed pictures of daily life in urban Cincinnati before the Civil War, from working and playing, and – most interesting to me- eating and drinking as an early 20-something hipster in Cincinnati.  In 1847, he decided to write his daily follies in a book that  fit into his coat pocket. His diary was turned into a great book called The Whisky Merchant’s Diary, which was annotated and enhanced with maps and actual photos.

Although Joseph had a sister who lived very well in Cinicnnati, Joseph rented a room in the 3rd Street boardinghouse of Mrs. Jenkins. He shared his room and one double bed with Charles Brown for $3 a week, which included meals. But he supplemented the meals at home with special treats like oysters, cakes, and beverages at bars and taverns around town.

As a whiskey merchant, Mersman bought distilled spirits, and redistilled or reprocessed them to remove impurities, increase the alcohol content, or flavor them before selling to liquor retailers. So, being in the world of distilled spirits, Joseph certainly knew where to go to get a good drink.   The world around his boarding house and office was surrounded by theatres, bars, and houses that boarded ‘ladies of a certain type.’

In December of 1847, he made several notations about stopping at several hangouts for an eggnog:

Dec 20 – Went to Billy Tell’s and partook in a glass of Egg Nog or sort of a milk punch
Dec 21 – Stopped at Hunkum’s to take a glass of Egg Nogg
Dec 22 – Went with Delmar to Billy Tell’s –  he treated to glass of Egg Nogg

Billy Tell’s was William Tells Coffeehouse on 5th Street between Main and Walnut. A Coffee house at that time, was more of a place to have a drink – spirit, wine, or beer and a small bite.  Hunkums was Fredrick Honkomp’s 2nd Ward House.

Before the Civil War an eggnog was not as we know it today, mostly the heavy cream and spice drink, spiked with a small amount of liquor like bourbon or rum.   It was completely the opposite – an alcohol fortified with egg cream and spices.  Egg nogg was started with a base of liquor, cider, or beer, and was then fortified with milk, whipped eggs, and stirred-in spices.   It was served warm and popular in the cold weather months.   Think of it as the pre-Civil War Pumpkin Spice Latte in its popularity.  It was  sort of like a winter shandy. Originally it was designed to give some flavor to what at the time in England were badly brewed sour ales, cider made with rank apples, and adulterated rums and whiskeys. In Europe eggnogg was considered a drink of the wealthy, as spices, eggs and milk were expensive and available only to those with money. When the drink came to America with immigrants, it became a drink of the working class, as eggs, milk and spices were much more readily available.

Many men, especially of German descent in Cinicnnati had their own Eggnogg secret recipes and many parties thrown during the holidays had these ‘home-spun’ eggnogs as the star. My grandfather’s long lost boozy eggnog recipe was the star of the family’s holiday parties. It was known to be very thick, almost custardy, like the eierlikors or egg liquors of northern Germany, where his grandfather had immigrated. Now, with the scare of raw egg-born pathogens, these eggnogs are hard to come by.

So be thankful this holiday season, as you sip your boozy eggnog  that yours wasn’t designed to cover up the taste of bad alcohol!

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