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What the Fuck is This Egg Doing in My Cocktail?

The science behind the unlikely pairing of eggs and alcohol

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

About a week ago I learned that I’d been accepted to compete in season seven of Speed Rack, the all-women bartending competition that’s among the most prestigious cocktail competitions in the country. It’s also arguably among the most daunting: You must make four great cocktails, ordered at random by judges, as fast as you fucking can, on stage, in front of the entire bartending community in a major city — and that’s if you make it to the stage at all. The prelims are equally grueling, with the top eight qualifying times all under 90 seconds.

So when I saw whiskey sour, egg white on the list of cocktails for prelims, a little piece of my soul broke.

Or you know: YOU’VE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME.

Egg white drinks take forever to make because you have to shake them twice, which, naturally, doubles their prep time. Otherwise, the egg white won’t emulsify, and if the egg white doesn’t emulsify, you’ll have weird pockets of raw egg floating around your cocktail. That, of course, will endear you to no one and definitely won’t win you any competitions.

More frustrating still, they’re just for show. That is, all that time and effort is essentially only to make your drink look better — not necessarily taste better.

Again: YOU’VE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME.

And so, I tried to find some meaning in what’s seemingly a meaningless pursuit: The unholy alliance of booze and eggs. Or better put: Eggs in booze.

We’ve Been Mixing Alcohol and Eggs Together Since the Dark Ages

An abundant and affordable food source in the Middle and Dark Ages, eggs were a common substitute for meat when pickings were thin and the king’s taxes were high. Peasants frequently made possets, a custard-like combination of eggs and spices that had a layer of booze (generally brandy, wine or sherry) underneath it. In terms of more recent history, spiked eggnogs were popular throughout Colonial America, and the precursor to the first codified reference to cocktails containing eggs in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bartender’s Guide: How to Mix Drinks, the original/inaugural bartender’s bible.

Thomas lists about a dozen (but of course) egg-fortified beverages — from eggnog to the whiskey sour — and notes that in any type of egg drink, the ingredients need to be shaken vigorously and thoroughly to properly combine them. “The essential in ‘flips’ [drinks containing whole eggs] of all sorts is to produce the smoothness by repeated pouring back and forward between two vessels … to turn it from one pitcher to another till it is as smooth as cream,” he wrote. (Modern bartenders accomplish this with a cocktail shaker — either two interlocking tins or a tin over a glass pint glass, aka the Boston shaker — and shaking the ever-loving shit out of the drink.)

The Ramos Gin Fizz is perhaps the most legendary of all egg cocktails among bartenders, and that’s because we fear it. First concocted by Henry C. Ramos of the Imperial Cabinet Saloon in New Orleans in 1888, the New Orleans Fizz, as it was originally called, required 12 minutes of shaking, often employing an entire assembly line of bartenders — a cocktail tin being thrown from one to the next — to keep the drinks coming.

Twelve minutes for a single drink is utter insanity.

But that was the point: Making a drink that both tasted good (a Ramos Gin Fizz is delectably creamy and Key Lime pie-esque) and allowed the bartender to put on a show while preparing it.

These days, egg white drinks (e.g., whiskey sours and gin fizzes) aren’t created much differently than they were during Jerry Thomas’ era. They’ve also made a comeback for roughly the same reason — they’re part of a long drinking tradition, and there are few things cocktail enthusiasts care about more than tradition.

The Egg White Cocktail Under a Microscope

The eggs we eat are essentially unfertilized baby chickens. If a bird were to be gestating within the shell, the blobby insides are what the baby chicken would feed on until it was strong enough to peck its way into the world. Therefore, the inside of an egg, particularly the egg white, represents a massive amount of protein. (The yolk is mostly fat, and while tasty and super handy in emulsions like mayonnaise, it does little in the way of froth or volume.)

The bonds of the proteins, however, are fairly weak and can be broken down easily — by whisking, by shaking or by adding acid like citrus juice or alcohol. And when these bonds break, they expose hydrophilic (water-loving) and hydrophobic (water-hating) chemical tails. Despite all the love and hate, however, these two tails intertwine and create an oxygen-trapping web that holds onto pockets of air when whisked or shaken, letting you whip up (literally) a drink with a frothy white cap.

It’s this creamy texture and meringue-like fluff that everyone who orders an egg white cocktail is looking for. Because here’s the truth: While it goes down smoother and looks nicer, the effect on your buzz is negligible.

No, An Egg White Cocktail Won’t Give You Salmonella

While chickens and chicken eggs are a well-known carrier of salmonella, the bacteria is most often on the shell. It’s possible for salmonella to creep into the egg yolk, but the FDA reports that the odds of consuming a contaminated egg in the U.S. is about 1 in 40,000. As long as you (or your bartender) is using store-bought pasteurized eggs — I’d think twice before consuming the ones your neighbor brought you from their coop — you’re not at risk for food poisoning from an egg drink.

In fact, you’re much more likely to die by getting struck by lightning.

Did I Mention That They Look Fantastic?

Trying to make an egg white drink fast on a busy Friday or Saturday night is stressful: They typically come out flat because I didn’t shake it as long as I should have because there are 45 people waiting for me to take their order. I do whatever I can to avoid putting out a drink that looks meh, but sometimes, there’s only so much I can do.

When it’s slower — even when it’s just not balls-to-the-wall — I love making egg white drinks. It’s a performance: from cracking the egg; to separating the yolk from the white; to the double shake; to the smooth pour into the glass with that marshmallowy white top. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as straining out a whiskey sour so firm and frothy you can draw on it.

Maybe that’s why I generally dislike egg white drinks — I don’t ever want to not do it right.

Or in other words, yeah, it might just be for looks, but it’s far from a meaningless task.