COLUMBUS — Ken Vetick has the routine down to a science.
He knows exactly when the egg whites are perfectly peaked and how long to mix each batch of Wunderlich’s Famous Tom and Jerry Batter to get just the right consistency.
Vetick, a self-employed contractor and part-time employee at the local catering business and liquor store, is in his fourth year as the “batter guy.”
Starting in October or early November, his primary focus is creating the mix for the hot, frothy drink that has become a holiday staple for many area families.
“It was a little overwhelming at first, but now it’s just like riding a bike,” Vetick said Wednesday evening as he prepared yet another batch of batter for the tasty concoction.
Even with all that practice, there’s one part of the process he’ll never master.
Steve Wunderlich, the fourth-generation owner of Wunderlich’s Catering and Barley Shoppe, is the only person who knows the secret spice blend that makes this Tom and Jerry mix so delectable.
The spice combination — scrolled on a small piece of paper locked away in a safe deposit box — hasn’t changed since Wunderlich’s great-grandfather Christ came up with it decades ago.
Christ started the family business in West Point in 1904, and his recipe for the sweet and spicy Christmastime cocktail has stayed with Wunderlich’s through several moves, including to the current location at the corner of Third Avenue and 23rd Street in Columbus.
“The recipe itself has been sent down from generation to generation,” said Wunderlich, who remembers watching his grandfather Max Sr. hard at work to meet the holiday demand when the business was at 12th Street and 25th Avenue before moving to the highway.
“We’ve been mixing it for a long, long time,” he said.
And nobody has dared to mess with the formula Columbus residents have come to know and love.
“The people enjoy it, so why change?” Wunderlich explained quite simply.
He did briefly experiment with a dry formula that would extend the product’s shelf life but couldn’t replicate the results provided by the batter.
The process of making the Tom and Jerry mix has, admittedly, gotten easier over time with the introduction of industrial mixers and egg yolks and whites that don’t have to be separated by hand before the whites are beaten then mixed with the yolks, powdered sugar, vanilla and other ingredients.
“I would have to have somebody here 24 hours a day, seven days a week just to separate the eggs with the volume that we do,” said Wunderlich, who spent plenty of time with a spatula or spoon in his hand while meticulously watching over the mixing process before passing the task off to Vetick.
Wunderlich’s will fill nearly 3,000 quart-size containers with its Famous Tom and Jerry Batter this year — one 45-minute, 12-quart batch at a time.
“The demand is getting to be more and more and more,” Wunderlich said. “It’s phenomenal the amount of batter that we make here.”
The frozen batter, which hardens to an ice cream-like consistency and keeps for several months in the freezer, is available at the local store, as well as Gretna Wine and Spirits, Deano’s Drive In Liquor in Schuyler, The Still in Lincoln, Big Dog’s Beverage in Elkhorn, Len and Jo’s Liquor Store in Fullerton, Gringo’s Cantina in Fremont, Louie’s Liquor in Norfolk and RB’s Corner Stop in David City.
It can also be shipped to customers — an order is heading to Missouri soon — but that adds to the cost.
Many of the people stopping in to get their seasonal fix are repeat customers who grew up with the holiday drink — which can be enjoyed with or without alcohol — and plenty more discover the delicious warm-me-up each year.
Roger Lechner of Columbus said his grandparents served Tom and Jerrys during the holidays when he was younger, but it was nothing like the Wunderlich’s version.
He gave up on eggnog after trying that Tom and Jerry mix, which Lechner described with childlike excitement.
“It’s the warmth,” he said. “It feels so good going down.”
“It makes your mouth happy.”
Lechner plans to stop by Wunderlich’s on his way home from work next week, when the business will serve the cocktail at the bar for a holiday treat.
He’s also sure to have some batter on hand to mix at home.
“What a great way to start Christmas Day,” he said.
To make the perfect Tom and Jerry, Wunderlich recommends heating the cup, then filling it one-third full with batter before slowly adding hot water while stirring vigorously.
“You can’t stir enough,” he said.
The drink is finished with a dash of nutmeg on top.
To kick it up a notch — something roughly 75 percent of the customers do, according to Wunderlich — add a half shot of “good rum” and half shot of “good brandy.”
Wunderlich said the batter is also good with coffee and he has customers who use it to make sugar cookies.
Vetick will continue cranking out quarts until around April, depending on demand, but his busiest day by far is later this month.
He’ll arrive around 6 a.m. on Christmas Eve to begin preparing around 20 of the 12-quart batches just to keep the freezer full until the store closes at 6 p.m.
Nearly every customer who walks in that day will be there for the same thing.
“That’s why they come — for the batter,” Wunderlich said.