As much as I love an icy cocktail, when I’m chilled to the bone and cursing all manufacturers of drafty windows, I seek warmth in my glass. Perhaps the simplest choice is the hot toddy. Traditionally made from fresh lemon, honey, bourbon and hot water – and rumored to possess medicinal properties – the hot toddy offers a balanced tonic to warm the body, calm the nerves and soothe the throat if need be. To someone who has been known to order vodka sodas, this sounds inviting. For those who need more from their libation, take comfort in knowing that the hot toddy’s blueprint of a warm base, spirit and sweetener can take nearly any form you like. Just be prepared for some traditionalist backlash.
The hot toddy’s origins are a bit of a grab bag of Scottish and English folklore, however; everyone knows of a version and has a personal story, to boot. My good friend Matt tells me of his time in Dublin when he curiously watched a bartender fill half a glass of Jameson with hot water, a lemon wedge and cloves for another patron who had a cold. Another friend Kim shares that when she was a child her mom had “magic cough syrup,” a gold colored liquid that killed her cough and put her to sleep. For years she searched drugstores to no avail. On her 21st birthday, her mom finally told her the magic ingredients: whiskey and honey.
Other tales speak to the same theme of the hot toddy as a remedy for those under the weather. A spoonful of honey might help the whiskey go down, but alcohol and sugar will also dehydrate you and some medications do not mix with booze, so I’m not sold on the hot toddy as a cure-all. Its magic lies in its comfort. As Matt puts it, the hot toddy is “like a natural, better tasting Theraflu that helps to take the edge off.”
When making a hot toddy, use the highest caliber ingredients you have, as it’s a short list that doesn’t leave much room for error. It’s best to use honey with low water content so that it maintains its freshness. Eli Sweet, bartender at DeWolf Tavern in Bristol, where hot toddies are a menu favorite, recommends using tea and cinnamon over hot water and cloves. “Really, you can use any liquor of your choice, just adjust the sugar based on how sweet it is. If you use rum, you’ll want to use less; with whiskey you might want more sweetness to balance.”
It seems that the hot toddy leaves almost all to the imagination, if you choose. Try white or brown sugar – or ginger simple syrup – instead of honey. Use brandy, rum, scotch, citrus liquors and even vodka, with herbal or black tea. Dabble with the spice rack, from allspice and cardamom to star anise and juniper berries. An apple slice will absorb a little heat and help to balance the spice and citrus dimensions. Surprisingly, some even prefer a slice of butter for extra ammunition against a sore throat.
I chose the traditional route for my first hot toddy, mostly due to house- hold availability of necessary components. Many recipes call for the muddling of half a lemon into your mug, but I found this to be too much. I suggest muddling a smaller amount to start and adding slices as needed once the other ingredients have been mixed. My second attempt reined in the fruit, added a touch more honey and struck gold. Maybe it’s the old man in me who loves bourbon (and hot water with lemon), or maybe it’s because I’m reminded of my nine-year-old self’s obsession with books like Heidi and The Secret Garden, where sick children needed exotic, mixed tonics; either way, I am really on board with this drink. It’s satisfying, clean and smooth. If I felt ill I would most certainly make this with herbal tea. Whether you go traditional or experimental, and whether you’re sick or just sick of the cold, enjoy the comforts of the hot toddy this winter.