Whisky Cocktails: The Hot Toddy

One thing they never tell you about having a baby: Once that baby is old enough to be in daycare or preschool, you will be sick. All. The. Time. Our house has become a revolving door for pathogenic organisms, usually of multiple types, brought home in spades by my plague-rat of a child. At this moment my son is recovering from two (at least) separate illnesses and is showing signs of a third, while my wife is sleeping away a Saturday with a fever and probable strep throat. I’m getting that sinking feeling that my allergy sniffles are not allergies, and I’ll be shoulder-deep in tissues any day now. At times like these my mind turns away from single-malts and cocktails to something more utilitarian: The Hot Toddy.

Supposedly of Scottish origin, the Hot Toddy has been a staple of drinking culture since as early as the 1750s (or earlier, the first printed reference was in 1750). Often prescribed by doctors as a cure-all, it quickly became the quintessential hot cocktail and was made with anything that came to hand when the called-for Scottish malt whisky wasn’t available: rum, bourbon, rye, applejack, brandy, pot-still Hollands gin (a malty spirit unlike today’s dry gins), etc. The original recipe called only for hot water, spirits, sugar, and nutmeg.

Original Hot Toddy

  • 2 oz spirits
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 3-4 oz hot water
  • (optional) freshly-grated nutmeg

Muddle the sugar and water together in a heated mug. Add spirits and stir to combine. Grate fresh nutmeg over the top.

For best results, use filtered water that is just off the boil. I use an electric kettle, and I leave it for 15 – 20 seconds after it clicks before pouring the water.

Choosing the spirit will be a personal matter of experimentation. You can’t go far wrong, though, since precedent exists for just about everything short of vodka, tequila, or dry gin. Like David Wondrich does in his seminal book on cocktail history, Imbibe! (from which I’ve drawn a lot… ok ALL of my cocktail knowledge), I suggest the use of a heavier pot-still product such as malt whisky, single pot-still Irish whiskey (like Redbreast 12), or dark pot-still rum. Whatever you choose, remember that the drink will seem more prominently alcoholic because the heat causes the alcohol to give off more ‘fumes’ and just as icing a whisky makes it duller and blander (and easier to drink if the booze is cheap), heating it does the opposite.

For the sugar, anything sweet will do. The original recipes would have called for fine or confectioner’s sugar, which was chosen for its ability to rapidly dissolve in cold drinks. However, the hot water will quickly dissolve most forms of sugar so feel free to use raw, brown, Demerara, Turbinado, honey, maple syrup, molasses, or even corn syrup.

Of course as with any “original” cocktail recipe, variations abound. Recipes can be found for versions that use tea, coffee, hot cider or hot wine in place of the water, and which are seasoned with everything from cinnamon and clove to allspice, ginger, and cayenne pepper. One of the largest differences between original and modern recipes is the use of citrus juices. This may have originated in the 1700s with a variation called a ‘skin’ which utilized a lemon peel either muddled with the sugar or boiled with the water. Modern recipes frequently call for the juice of the lemon as well. Perhaps this is an effort to bring some Vitamin C to a drink that is supposed to be effective against a respiratory infection. Here’s a more representative modern Toddy recipe:

Modern Hot Toddy

  • 1.5 oz spirits
  • 1 tsp sugar or 2 tsp honey
  • 3/4 oz lemon juice
  • 3-4 oz hot water
  • (optional) whole clove, cinnamon, and/or a lemon peel

Boil the water with the spices or lemon peel and let cool slightly. Muddle the sugar (if using) or honey, lemon juice, and water together in a heated mug. Add spirits and stir to combine.

Caution: Do not attempt to heat the spirits directly over a heat source. While this can be done, you’re likely to end up lighting it on fire. Look up a recipe for a “Blue Blazer” if this is really what you want.

Finally, the use of rum as the spirit and the inclusion of butter, clove, and cinnamon make a Hot Buttered Rum. If experience is any guide, though, you’ll need to crank up the sugar to make this palatable. I made it once and found it… just… weird.

Finally, for an interesting take on the modern hot toddy, and a recipe for a ginger syrup that I am TOTALLY going to try out, see Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s blog. Feel free to comment with your favorite toddy recipe. I’m going to go justify an afternoon toddy by convincing myself that it’s preventative medicine. Bottoms up!

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