The hot toddy, in a bartender’s lexicon, is elegantly simple: any alcoholic drink that is heated up, or to which hot liquid is added.
In former eras, toddies were often given to children (with considerably larger sizes provided for the adults) to alleviate sore throats and winter colds, said toddies consisting of whiskey, brandy or rum, hot water, honey, lemon, and optionally cinnamon and cloves. Toddies were also popular in taverns and inns to cut through the icy cold of winter and restore the spirit—with spirits.
Before Prohibition, much of the spirits sales came from pharmacists and doctors who considered spirits medicinal. Even during Prohibition, doctors were allowed to issue prescriptions for medicinal use of whiskey. For obvious social and medical reasons, that’s not done anymore, of course; but it speaks to the efficacy of toddies for adult use only.
An old English variation of a hot toddy was to use Scotch Whisky and heavily steeped black tea with added fruits and spices, as this made for a stouter drink with astringent tannins, while serving the English penchant for putting tea in everything possible. It’s an old bartender’s trick to add small amounts of tea in cocktails to add body and character.
You can also make your own version of a tea bag for your toddy: put mixed savory herbs and flowers and dried cranberries into a small patch of fine mesh cloth, bundle it up, tie it with a ribbon, then add it to your favorite whiskey in a cup. Pour hot water into it, let it steep, and you’ve got a very adult version of your Aunt Tilly’s tea.
Another approach is to spice up the spirit before you add the hot water or tea. If you’re a bourbon lover, put Woodford Reserve Bourbon Whiskey in an infusion jar, add about four slices of dried apples (make sure they are unsulfured) with two or three sticks of cinnamon. Let it sit for about two or three days, strain, and mix with hot water to your taste. Garnish with a dried apple slice or a cinnamon stick. Simple and delicious!
With the popularity of whiskey and brandy liqueurs flavored with honey, nothing could be simpler than to pour a healthy measure of Honey Liqueur into your hot tea. Garnish with a slice of lemon and you have a comforting warm winter drink in no time at all.
In Colonial America, of course, there was the ubiquitous rum toddy, or hot buttered rum. And, yes, there is butter in a hot buttered rum toddy: a pat of sweet butter, to be precise. It’s a necessary and delightful element of the drink. Practical fellows, those Colonial forefathers; they used the expedient of simply sticking a red-hot poker from the fireplace into the flagon of prepared rum to heat it up. Thus foregoing unnecessary dilution, one supposes.
It was even said that one signer of the Declaration of Independence was so fond of his rum toddies he was admonished in on the floor in Congress by his peers for three reasons: the incessant fiddling with toddies, the loquaciousness that ensued, and the frequent trips to the jakes that were entailed.
The making of the toddy is as simple, or as complicated, as you wish it to be. The ingredients likewise. Most people use the addition of hot water; the fireplace poker is optional, though a bit messy. The advantage of the poker, however, adds another element to a drink. As Jacob Grier points out in his book Cocktails On Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits with Beer, the hot metal caramelizes the sugars in the drink and causes highly aromatic steam to rise from the cup with lovely perfume.
One note of advice here: after making several hot rum toddies, one drinker was signally unimpressed, complaining that there just wasn’t that much flavor there. When he mentioned he was using silver Cuban rum, the reason for his disaffection became clear. With the substitution of dark, aged rums, or the British style Navy Rum redolent of dark molasses and freighted with spices, he understood why these drinks were so popular.
If you’re toddying for the first time, try Smith & Cross Rum, Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, Lamb’s Navy Rum or El Dorado Demerara Rum. They are aromatic and flavor intense, complex and mouthfilling. If you prefer a more alcoholically robust toddy, use the Lemon Hart Overproof Rum; it packs a punch but delivers impressive flavors of caramel, banana, dried fruit and spice. And don’t hesitate to add various fruits and spices, particularly nutmeg and clove and vanilla, or even oleo saccharum, for these have a good affinity with dark rums. Or choose from the abundance of spiced rums, such as Cruzan 9, since the spices are already in the bottle before you start.
One of the most delightful and original of hot toddies is made by Estanislado Orona, bar manager at the Raven & Rose Rookery Bar. He makes his hot toddy, The Rose’s Embrace, with gin and Combier Rose Petal liqueur. Beautiful to look at and wonderful to sip, it’s an impressive and unusual hot toddy.
Seems there are enough variation on hot toddies to suit everyone’s fancy these days. Keep your winter a little warmer and have one.