What do you like to put in your hot toddies, and if you don’t favour them, what warms your cockles and cuts through your colds at this time of year?
This is a rare bibulous outing for this column – but if I’m honest, at this time of year even my appetite is on the spare side. The puritanically-minded might suggest most of us would also do well to lay off the demon drink for a few days too, which would make the hot toddy the ideal January tipple as it’s a strictly medicinal preparation, perfect for pepping up the post-Christmas spirits and banishing seasonal sniffles.
In fact, I’d go so far as to bait Dr Ben Goldacre by claiming the toddy as a wonder drug. The heat, spice and sweet and sour flavours apparently all encourage – and I’m sorry, there’s no nice way to say this – mucus production, discouraging the advance of those pesky bacteria and viruses, while the booze helps you sleep. (In moderation, of course. All things in moderation.)
Plus, and perhaps most importantly, there’s that all-important psychological effect: nothing is more comforting on a cold, wet day when your eyeballs are about to pop out of your head, than a steaming glass of something hot and alcoholic to thaw you out. Surely even the grumpiest of January scrooges couldn’t begrudge us a little flu relief?
In this country at least, a hot toddy generally implies whisky. There’s something about the slightly medicinal notes of the spirit which seem to fit. In reality, however, there are as almost as many variants as there are spirits: as the New York Times has observed, “once you start digging, you realise it’s not really a drink but more a loose family bonded by heat”. Because toddies as we know them today originate from the 19th century, in practice this generally means rum or brandy, although sambuca, tequila and even vodka have their twenty-first century fans.
Those who claim the name derives from a freshwater spring on Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat would probably argue that whisky is the most traditional choice. I’m going to side with them because I like it, and also because I lack the coconut moonshine used in the Indian alternative. The only recipe I try using any other spirit is an intriguing tea-based rum toddy from Imbibe magazine: the sweetness works well with the honey it also uses, but I miss the slightly salty, savoury edge even a softer bourbon brings with it.
Whisky is a particularly personal taste, and I vary what I use according to my mood: bourbon, with its sweet vanilla notes, makes for a satisfyingly rich after-dinner toddy, perfect for when you need a bit of comforting, while a smoky, seaweedy island scotch like a Talisker or an Islay malt creates a leaner, more elegant drink. Something spicy, like the Black Bush from Bushmills, meanwhile, will wake up your slumbering palate.
The only caution I’d issue is to avoid anything too delicate, because it will inevitably be buried by the deluge of flavours – I like Isle of Arran, Chivas Regal, Singleton, Macallan and Glenlivet, but all of them are lost here. Smoothness is great for sipping, but in a toddy, you want a bit of fire.
The liquid – and infusing time
The other important liquid in a hot toddy, of course, is the hot one. (The 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book’s whisky toddy is served cold, with a lump of ice, but a glass of chilled whisky and water is almost the last thing I’d want for a blocked nose.) Hot water is the most common base: Susy Atkins in the Telegraph, drinks writer Tom Sandham, one half of the Thinking Drinkers and bartender Gary Regan all keep it simple in their recipes.
Water’s not the only option however: Imbibe magazine make a spice-infused tea as a base for their chai rum toddy, Drambuie suggest apple juice for a rusty hot apple toddy, and a recipe from bourbon producers Woodford Reserve mixes the hot water with red wine. These fancier versions, while undeniably alluring, muddy the simple appeal of the toddy, which should (I think) be an essentially whisky-flavoured libation. Drambuie’s offering reminds me more of a very punchy mulled cider, and Woodford Reserve’s, obviously, of mulled wine: the spirit has to take a step back amongst all the other flavours. The best is the blessedly subtle tea, but I’m still not sold on the idea of tannins in my toddy.
That said, I am going to take one tip from Imbibe, and take time to infuse the water with spices, rather than just popping them all in the glass together, and hoping for the best. It takes a little longer, but the results are far superior.
The sweet and sour
If booze is the predominant flavour of a hot toddy, right behind it should be an astringent, citric sharpness, and a balancing heady sweetness – forget subtlety, this is a dish to wake up frozen tastebuds, and unblock sniffling noses. Some recipes, like those from Regan, Dan Priseman, writer of the Bitters & Twisted blog, and Jerry Thomas, author of the first recorded recipe for a toddy in 1862’s The Bartender’s Guide, use only lemon zest, while others, like Atkins and Sandham stir in a slice of lemon. Unless you stir very hard, however, even the latter doesn’t deliver much in the way of acid – I prefer the zinginess of the Drambuie and Imbibe cocktails, which both include lemon juice along with zesty peel.
Using juice, of course, demands more in the way of sweetness, unless you’re Thomas, whose rather severe toddy includes no sugar at all. Mary Poppins was right: it’s medicinal in the truest sense of the word. Sugar syrup, which, as Priseman points out, dissolves more easily than Atkins’ granulated demerara, is the bartender’s choice, but it’s a one-dimensional flavour. Honey, as in the Imbibe and Sandham’s recipes, adds a delicate floral note – especially if you can get hold of some Scottish heather stuff. (Whether local honey has any health boosting properties, however, is another matter for Dr Goldacre.)
Sweet spices are the order of the day here. The chai toddy includes such exoticisms as cardamom, star anise and peppercorns, which are a little overpowering for my taste; a few cloves and a cinnamon stick add a more subtle heat to the toddy. I’m also going to borrow a suggestion from Michael McIntyre (the chairman of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists rather than the popular comedian) in the Telegraph and pop in a few slices of fresh ginger, to enhance its warming qualities. Regan suggests topping it with ground star anise in his book The Joy of Mixology but the almost mentholated flavour jars. Far nicer is Sandham’s sweet, slightly peppery ground nutmeg.
The cinnamon stick does double service as a rustic garnish, along with a zesty twist of lemon peel. Priseman uses a vanilla pod too, which works beautifully with the sweet vanilla flavours of his favoured Four Roses bourbon, but, I think, rather less well with a scotch. Bourbon lovers should bear it in mind, while his garnish, a thing of rare beauty, is something we can all aspire to. On reflection, however, I say screw the delicate corkscrews of peel, and get the toddy down you while it’s hot. You won’t regret it.
The perfect hot toddy
For each toddy
1cm piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
1 strip of lemon peel
1-2 tsp lemon juice
Grating of nutmeg
1. Put the water in a small pan along with the spices and peel over a low heat. Bring to a gentle simmer. Meanwhile rinse a heatproof glass with hot water and dry.
2. Pour the whisky into your warmed glass, then pour over hot water and spices. Stir in the honey and lemon juice and taste for sweetness. Top with a little nutmeg, and breathe in deeply.
Hot toddies: precious medicine, or dangerous quackery? What do you like to put in yours, and if you don’t favour a toddy, which drinks, alcoholic or otherwise, do warm your cockles and cut through your colds at this time of year?