Hard Nog and Hardy Oranges:
A History of Virginian Cocktails with Micah LeMon
Join us for a special holiday episode where we investigate the rich mixed drink history of Virginia with Micah LeMon, bartender and author of The Imbible, A Cocktail Guide for Beginning & Home Bartenders. What did Virginia citrus have to do with the birth of the California orange industry? And can we really trace an eggnog recipe back to George Washington's Mt. Vernon? We'll bust some cocktail myths while exploring the contributions Virginia has made to the mixed drink industry over the last two hundred years. We'll also learn Micah's helpful tips and tricks to understanding the mystifying world of cocktail making. All this and more eggnog than you can shake a bourbon bottle at on our mid-season finale of The Feast.
Written and Produced by Laura Carlson
Technical Direction by Mike Portt
Special Guest: Micah LeMon
LeMon managed the bar program at several Charlottesville restaurants before finding a home at The Alley Light, where he has overseen the bar since its 2014 opening. The Alley Light was a 2015 semifinalist for The James Beard Foundation’s best new restaurant award, due in large part to the inventive and well-executed cocktails that LeMon and his bar staff created. In addition to his work at the restaurant, LeMon owns Lemon Bar Services, a company that specializes in beverage catering with a focus on custom, seasonal and creative cocktails.
LeMon’s first book, The Imbible, arrives this fall via The University of Virginia Press. As LeMon describes it, it’s the book he wishes someone had given him when he first started out in the industry. It covers theory, technique, and recipes, but most importantly it covers the basic principles of mixology that are indispensable to both home and professional bartenders. The book is an invaluable resource that helps bartenders of all stripes understand and execute classic cocktails while giving them the knowledge and confidence to riff on those to make originals of their own.
About The Imbible
Micah LeMon had one slight problem when he started bartending nearly twenty years ago: he had no idea what he was doing. Mixology, he came to understand, is based on principles that are indispensable but not widely known. In The Imbible, LeMon shares the knowledge he has gained over two decades, so that even beginning bartenders can execute classic cocktails--and riff on those classics to create originals of their own.
A good cocktail is never a random concoction. LeMon introduces readers to the principal components of every drink--spirit, sweet, and sour or bitter--and explains the role each plays in bringing balance to a beverage. Choosing two archetypes--the shaken Daiquiri and the stirred Manhattan—he shows how bartenders craft delicious variations by beginning with a good foundation and creatively substituting like ingredients.
Lavishly illustrated in color and laid out in an inviting and practical way, The Imbible also provides a thorough overview of the bartender’s essential tools and techniques and includes recipes for over forty drinks--from well executed classics to original creations exclusive to this book. Both a lesson for beginners and a master class for more experienced bartenders, LeMon’s book opens the door to endless variations without losing sight of the true goal--to make a delicious cocktail.
How to Make an American Citrus:
The Unexpected History of the Hardy Orange
Although Spanish explorers helped to introduce orange trees to Florida in the early 16th century, citrus remained an expensive and seasonal fruit in the United States until the end of the 19th century. Following the Civil War in the 1860s, botanist and horticulturalist William Saunders began to experiment with new varietals of orange that might withstand the intense winters of New England. His hopes rested on a small, bitter orange from Asia, known as the Pomcirus Trifoliata, or the hardy or trifoliate orange. His experiments with grafting other varietals of citrus to hardy orange rootstock inspired him to look south to a Brazilian varietal known as the "navel orange". Interested in how these trees would do in the Mediterranean-like climate of California, Saunders sent two naval orange trees to Eliza Tibbets, a resident of Riverside, California in the late 1870s. The success of the trees in California's climate led to what is often known as a mini-gold orange rush, as people flocked to Riverside to establish their own orange orchards, using graftings from Tibbet's orange trees. The success of these trees led to a significant increase in availability of oranges throughout the US, leading to additional usage of them in bartending books (which were also becoming popular at the time) throughout America.
Hardy Orange Marmalade by Micah LeMon
This recipe is one of the few known for the hardy orange, since its tough skin, bitter taste, and seedy fruit have daunted many a chef. This marmalade forms the basis of one of Micah's signature cocktails at The Alley Light, known appropriately as the "Hardy Handshake"
2 or 3 oranges, sliced thinly with seeds removed
6 cups whole hardy oranges
6 cups water
6 cups sugar
Take the 6 cups of hardy oranges, and rinse and scrub thoroughly. Slice thinly and remove seeds. Boil the oranges in the 6 cups of water for 10 minutes. Then simmer them for an additional 40 minutes. Add the sugar and cook for an additional 30 minutes stirring regularly, or until the color starts to darken or caramelize (if you have a thermometer, you're looking for approximately 222 degrees F).
The Problem with Posset
aka An American History of Eggnog
The medieval origins of eggnog rest in the beverage known as "posset". Halfway between thick milk and a custard, posset, which often combined sugar, eggs, milk, cream, and often sherry or rum, was a hugely popular drink throughout the latter medieval era up through the 17th century. Posset pots, such as the one seen on the left, were common features of a early modern upper middle class home. Akin to teapots, these insulated china posset pots allowed the beverage to stay warm while also filtering the thick egg and cream.
Inevitably, the beverage made its way to the British colonies in North America, where its name soon transitioned to eggnog. Eggnog, in a variety of forms, remained popular throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, its ubiquity also stemmed by the adoption of Prohibition in the United States in 1920. Even during America's dry days, eggnog was still a popular beverage, albeit in a non-alcoholic form.
"George Washington's" Eggnog?
“One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, ½ pint rye whiskey, ½ pint Jamaica rum, ¼ pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 12 eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.”
Although the recipe is often associated with George Washington (including on the Farmer's Almanac) and certainly includes many of the iconic alcohols associated with early American versions of eggnog, there is little evidence that this recipe dates any earlier than the 1940s when it appeared in a small booklet called Christmas with the Washingtons by Olive Bailey. Although records indicate that George and Martha Washington happily served eggnog and other Christmas drinks at Mt. Vernon, a specific recipe they might have used doesn't survive.
But America's love of nog did lend itself to numerous regional variations over the years which led to several styles of eggnog, including:
General Harrison's Eggnog (circa 1882)
Numerous variations on the "nog" appeared in print during the 19th century, but none are as unusual as this recipe, which claims to have been the favorite of William Henry Harrison, aka Tippecanoe, aka the 9th President of the United States who died in 1841. Instead of the traditional liquor, Harrison's is a much simpler recipe using only hard apple cider, egg, and sugar.
The above recipe is from Harry Johnson's 1882 The New And Improved Bartender's Manual but variations on Harrison's cider-based nog could be found in almost every 19th century American bar book, including an older version in Jerry Thomas' 1862 How to Mix Drinks.
Although Maryland seems to have become the most famous 'regional' style of eggnog, that doesn't mean that Virginia didn't have its own eggnog preferences by the late 19th century. Several recipes from the 1890s indicate that a true "Virginian" style of nog included brandy, and specifically apple brandy. Compare these recipes with Micah's 21st take on the nog below to see how Virginians have kept up this nog tradition for at least 100 years!
From The LA Times, Dec. 24th, 1894
From The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 25th, 1890
Micah LeMon's Eggnog
12 eggs, separated into whites and yolks
2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups heavy cream (or whipping cream)
4 cups whole milk
3/4 tsp freshly ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 vanilla bean
Combine egg yolks and sugar with cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla and beat until creamy.
Add milk and 1 cup of cream. In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites into stiff peaks. In another bowl, whip the remaining 1 1/2 cups heavy cream into soft peaks. Carefully fold together the whipped cream, egg whites, and beaten yolks, sugar, and spices in the same bowl.
And if you'd like a boozier version:
Micah likes to spike the above recipe to order as follows: 1 1/2 oz brandy to approximately 5 1/2 oz. egg nog. Feel free to sub a different distillate or vary the egg nog quantity to suit your buds :)