There’s a comfortable old-pair-of-slippers link between certain drinks and their requisite occasions—coffee and morning; beer and a ball game; the Hot Toddy and sickness.
The latter has indeed taken on the role of the chicken soup of the cocktail world—so much so that there’s even a Chicken Soup Toddy made with chicken stock, along with gin, celery bitters and lemon juice at New York City’s Jimmy at The James hotel by co-owner Johnny Swet). But with the Toddy, it’s as much a soother of psyche as it is the symptoms of wonky countenance. If it could speak, the Toddy would whisper, “There, there, now. Just rest and feel better.” And who doesn’t need that every once in a while?
“Many people believe the origin of all cocktails came from medicinal use,” says Brandon Lockman, the head bartender at Portland, Ore.’s Red Star Tavern, where the bar’s collection of 250-plus bottles of whiskey inspire the Toddy-craving habits of patrons in the cooler months.
“Early use for alcohol was to numb pain, so it seems natural that they’re administered by drinking,” says Lockman. “I don’t think many people are turning to cocktails for more serious ailments, but the Toddy will always be a well-known throat soother, and it certainly helps with getting to sleep when you have a cold.”
But what happens when the Toddy is reimagined? What happens when its parameters—spirit, sweetening agent, lemon peel, hot water and perhaps a few aromatic cloves—are expanded, contracted or added to? Is it still a Toddy?
It’s a question that comes up when you see multiple forms of spice and peel, chunks of fruit and grated this and that crammed into a single mug. Some bars have even been known to (gasp!) dollop whipped cream on top, like the spoon took a wrong turn on the way to an Irish Coffee. Is it too much? Can Toddies teeter into untoward territory?
(illustration: Justin Shiels)
“I’ve been served Toddies with basically the essence of a potpourri bag floating in it. Overdoing one way or the other is just stupid, and this applies to any sort of drink,” says Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland, Ore. But when he was looking to get to the heart of the Toddy for a permanent spot on his menu, what he found earned a tepid response. “Hot Toddies are gross, if you want to stay historically accurate with the original spirit and recipe,” says Morgenthaler. The earliest recipe he could find in print was from Jerry Thomas’ “The Bar-Tenders Guide” of 1862, and it employed a scant amount of sugar, a “wine glass of brandy,” some hot water and a little grated nutmeg. And while maybe that’s not exactly gross, it’s not that exciting either.
“There are differing accounts of when and where Hot Toddies originated,” says Lockman. “There are records that the name comes from a 19th-century Dublin physician named Dr. Robert Bentley Todd, who would prescribe patients a mixture of brandy, cinnamon, sugar and hot water. It can be tough to pin down the exact truth and dates with cocktail lore, but they make good stories to tell my guests sitting at the bar.”
This sounds nearly identical to Thomas’ Toddy, but what’s interesting here is that both drinks have brandy as their base, not the one ingredient that seems to be the general modern-day Toddy staple: whiskey. This, surprisingly, doesn’t really seem to matter at all. What does matter is the balance of aromatics, flavor, texture and, perhaps most importantly, temperature.
“Really, who cares what spirit you use?” says Morgenthaler. “If you like whiskey, use whiskey. If you like brandy, rum or pear eau-du-vie, use that.” What does matter, he says, is heat. Morgenthaler adopts a bain-marie approach. This involves heating the spirits by pouring very warm water into one mixing tin, then adding the base spirit (in his case, bourbon), allspice dram, lemon juice and house-made ginger syrup in the other and then nestling it in the first. It’s a sort of double-boiler concept to get the spirits warm and release their aromatics. Then add a little hot water, stir and serve.
“I had been served so many warm or lukewarm Toddies that I was looking for a way to drink the whole drink hot,” says Morgenthaler. “A splash of hot water alone doesn’t result in a hot drink. The bain-marie is our way of getting those ingredients up to temperature. That’s the secret to our Hot Toddy—it’s actually hot.”
“A great Hot Toddy should have the perfect balance in acidity and sugar without being too strong, as vapors make it unpleasant to drink hot,” says Nico de Soto, who created a Toddy riff, the Bad Santa, for Miracle, the national Christmas cocktail pop-up that kicks off in November. It’s one of most complicated Toddies out there, consisting of hot milk punch made with Barbados rum, Trinidad overproof rum, Batavia-Arrack, pineapple juice, lemon juice, almond milk, myriad spices, coconut water and coconut oil. But the combo works.
De Soto found that adjusting the sugar level was key because, he says, in its hot form, the drink requires more sugar than it would if it was served cold. “It’s all about balancing what spirit you put in. I prefer rum, but that’s a personal opinion. As long as you use a good quality base, you can make it work. You can even use fernet!”
“Certain spirits bring their own level of sweetness,” says Lockman, who gravitates toward the traditional with the Toddies on his menu for the vanilla and caramel notes that whiskey or brandy tend to pick up from time in a barrel. “Personally, I try to stick to the original sweetener, honey, because it’s the throat-soothing part of the drink, and other sweeteners don’t exactly do the trick or have the same texture or flavor. The secret to balancing the components comes from trial and error. I’ve seen a lot of Toddy variations, but it basically boils down to alcohol, citrus, sweetener and hot water.”
And of course, the whole simmering shebang needs to smell good—less aromatic than the perfume department of Macy’s but more than a simple shaving of Thomas’ suggested grate of nutmeg.
“The right aromatics take a hot Toddy to the next level and enhance the overall flavor of the drink,” says Lockman. “Plus, using baking spices or herbs opens up a lot of creative possibilities to riff on the classic combination. By putting a sprig of rosemary or clove-studded orange peel in the same drink, it will bring out different notes in the base spirit, or the house syrups and honeys we use. Your nose plays a big role in how you taste.”