Celeste's Eggnog

Celeste Albers of Wadmalaw Island is a huge fan of homemade eggnog, especially when it's made with her farm's products. "I use our raw milk and our raw eggs, so it's really not fair," she says.

High-quality vanilla goes into the mix as well. "It shouldn't really taste like eggs, that's the thing," she explains. "It should taste creamy and refreshing, with warmth from the alcohol."

At the Albers' house, the alcohol is rum, bourbon and brandy. She also adds a strong cup of coffee to her nog.

"We love to drink it in the morning before we work," she says.

Celeste's Eggnog

Ingredients

1 dozen eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1 pint cream

1 cup strong brewed coffee (cold) or 2 teaspoons espresso powder dissolved in 3/4 cup water

11/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 cup bourbon

3/4 cup rum

1/4 cup brandy

3 cups whole milk

Freshly grated nutmeg for garnish

Directions

Beat eggs 1 minute. Add sugar, beat 3 minutes, then add cream and beat until frothy. Stir in coffee, vanilla and liquors. Transfer to large bowl and add milk. Pour into rocks glasses and top with freshly grated nutmeg.

Their assignment may have been festive, but the judges on our commercial eggnog panel didn't brook frivolity: Served tasting cups of Pennsylvania Dutch Egg Nog, a Dairyland Distillers product that clocks in at nearly 30 proof, they swirled, sipped, swished - and gave the boozy holiday concoction a near-failing grade.

Grandma Ivy's Egg Nog

Charleston chef Robert Dickson couldn't find a store-bought eggnog that measured up to his eggnog ideal, established years ago when he visited his wife's grandmother in Kansas. She poured him a serving, "and I was like, 'This is eggnog,' " he recalls.

Note: If you have concerns about salmonella contamination in raw eggs, use pasteurized eggs instead.

Grandma Ivy's Egg Nog

Great Bend, Kan., c. 1935

Ingredients

6 large egg yolks

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 cup bourbon, chilled (or half rum, half bourbon)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups whole milk

3/4 cup heavy cream

6 large egg whites, at room temperature

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Freshly grated nutmeg for garnish

Directions

With an electric mixer, beat yolks to ribbon stage. Slowly add sugars then add liquor and vanilla. Slowly pour in milk and cream as mixer is running on slow speed. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate.

In a very clean bowl, whip egg whites with cream of tartar until stiff and still moist, but not to a dry state.

To the cool yolk mixture, fold in egg whites with spatula, (not necessary to thoroughly blend). Chill until service.

Sprinkle with nutmeg over bowl or each serving.

"Horrible," one judge scribbled on a score sheet, clearly unswayed by the blended whiskey, brandy and rum.

Charleston Eggnog

There are three eggnog recipes in "Charleston Receipts." Cotton Hall Plantation Eggnog serves 90-100 people, and Simple Eggnog serves one. But Annie Gammell's Charleston Eggnog is sized for a more typical party crowd.

Note: If you have concerns about salmonella contamination in raw eggs, use pasteurized eggs instead.

Charleston Eggnog

Ingredients

cup granulated sugar

10 egg yolks

1 pint rye whiskey

1 quart heavy cream

10 egg whites, stiffly beaten

Directions

Cream sugar and egg yolks thoroughly. Add whiskey slowly, stirring constantly, the cream (unwhipped), then the stiffly beaten egg whites.

Although the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association doesn't track eggnog production and consumption, shoppers say they're seeing an increasing number of eggnogs in the dairy case at Christmastime.

To help sort out which nogs are worth the money (and the many calories), we convened a panel of experts to assess eight eggnogs sold in liquor stores and groceries around Charleston.

Meet the judges

The rum and whiskey makers: Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell, who last year sold their cookie company to General Mills, this year opened downtown Charleston's first distillery since Prohibition. High Wire Distilling Co.'s products include rum, vodka, gin and sorghum whiskey.

The egg and dairy farmer: Celeste Albers, a finalist for Chefs Collaborative's 2013 regional Foodshed Champion prize, started farming vegetables in 1993. Today she's renowned for her raw milk and golden eggs.

Santa Claus: The baritone behind Robert's, the storied downtown restaurant that served up beef tenderloin and scallop mousse for more than three decades, Robert Dickson wears the Santa suit for the city's official Christmas Tree Lighting.

Rating the eggnogs

While flavored eggnogs account for 10 percent of national nog sales, this tasting was limited to eggnogs prepared in the classical manner. Judges were asked to rate each entry's appearance and aroma; texture; egg flavor; spicing; and aftertaste on a 10-point scale for a possible total of 50.

The ratings are purely subjective: The judges weren't required to give higher marks to yellowish nogs, or dock points from nogs that tasted of nothing but nutmeg. But to keep the judging somewhat fair, the eggnogs were presented unlabeled.

The final ratings reflects the average scores, rounded up to the nearest whole number.

The prices are what we paid when shopping on the peninsula; you may pay slightly more or less at your local store.

The dud eggnogs

Silk Soymilk Seasonal Nog, $3

Score: 10

Judges refrained from spitting out any eggnogs, but Silk's nondairy eggnog challenged them. "Ooh, that's really horrible," Albers said. "It's a little green," Marshall added. "I think it's toxic." Thin, flat and watery, Silk was the only nog that received zero cumulative points from a judge. "I'd rather drink water," Blackwell harrumphed.

Pennsylvania Dutch Eggnog, $9.60

Score: 15

The most expensive eggnog in the tasting also was deemed one of the worst. Judges agreed its aroma, flavor and aftertaste were uniformly unpleasant. Dickson said the dairy element reminded him of Carnation evaporated milk. "Horrible," Blackwell ruled.

Southern Home Premium Light Eggnog, $3

Score: 23

The only lower-cal eggnog in the bunch, racking up a mere 280 calories per cup, Southern Home tasted like melted cheap ice cream. "Like Breyer's," clarified Blackwell, who detected the recognizable notes of artificial vanilla in his slug. "It's got nothing going for it," Albers said sadly. Dickson immediately grasped why the nog was so strangely thin: "Diet," he scrawled next to one of his lowest scores of the day.

The also-ran eggnogs

Southern Comfort Traditional Eggnog, $3.49

Score: 29

Before the judges even started drinking, Southern Comfort was a standout. "It's slightly more orange," Marshall noted skeptically. "It tastes like pumpkin pie," Albers added. But if the eggnog lost ground on color and spice, it picked up points in the texture column. "It has a nice, rich mouthfeel," Dickson said. But one taster's richness is another taster's excess: "I think it's too thick," Marshall declared.

PET Eggnog, $3.19

Score: 30

The aroma of PET's eggnog put off Marshall, who described a whiff as weirdly "perfumey." Albers, though, ventured the funky smell could come from its spices (listed on the bottle's backside as "natural and artificial flavor": While alcohol makers are exempt from having to list their products' ingredients, the majority of store-bought nogs are chemically enhanced.) "It's not bad," Albers said. "I think it has more flavor."

The top eggnogs

HT Traders Fresh Eggnog, $3.49

Score: 32

The judges were unanimously cool on Harris Teeter's house brand, a thick, faintly medicinal spin on the drink. Interestingly, one of the judges mistook it for one of the two alcoholic entries. There's no liquor in HT Traders, but it tastes very much like the subtly spiked nogs served at classy parties. Judges described it as "traditional" and "common."

Evan Williams Original Southern Eggnog, $8.95

Score: 32

"Boozy. Overpowering booze," Marshall wrote on her scoresheet. "Too boozy," Blackwell wrote on his. But the amount of alcohol was perfect for Dickson, who swigged his cup and asked for seconds. "Uh oh," Marshall said. "Santa's getting serious."

Organic Valley Certified Organic Eggnog, $4.99

Score: 39

Whether you typically buy organic, the judges overwhelmingly agreed that Organic Valley is the eggnog you ought to add to your shopping cart. They were especially impressed by its consistency and nutmeg-forward flavor. "It's pretty darn good," said Albers. "I'm giving it some pretty high marks here."

Dickson initially didn't include Organic Valley among his favorites, but consented to give it another try. "Alright, let me have some more eight," he said, using the nog's secret number. "Everyone's talking about eight." Although he was disappointed by the lack of aftertaste, he suggested "it would make a nice vanilla sauce. Just thicken it up with a little cornstarch."

Marshall and Blackwell broke out a bottle of rum for Organic Valley's eggnog: It took on the liquor without any trouble, which is a fairly good model for anybody's holiday season.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.