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    Tuesday, July 23, 2024

    A hot toddy won't cure your cold, but it will warm your spirits

    Is the hot toddy a simple concoction, mothered by necessity and measured by eye, best thrown together by a gruff septuagenarian and served to shivering travelers who've stumbled into a down-at-heel pub, seeking respite from the sleet?

    Or is the hot toddy a finer, finicky device, a craft beverage that rewards tinkering and upgrades, consideration of the flavor of spirits and the means and ratios of dilution, the interplay between sweet and tart and boozy in the warm aromatic steam drifting toward your winter-wan face?

    Yes. Yes it is.

    Today, the hot toddy will adjust to your style, at turns as simple or complex as you want it to be.

    Just don't ask it to cure your cold.

    In his bartender's manual, first published in the late 19th century, Jerry Thomas depicts a roster of toddies, some served hot, some cold. Most are no more complex than water, sugar and spirit, sometimes with nutmeg grated on top. That's the Toddy 101.

    Of course, the toddy has been evolving for a long time since, with shifts to honey as a sweetener, lemon added for flavor and to enhance the drink's purported medicinal properties. And when the cocktail renaissance got a hold of it in the early 2000s, when old drinks were being rejiggered, blinged out and bolstered by the dozen, the toddy got plenty of polishing. If the Jerry Thomas toddy brushed past these 21st century "toddies" in a crowd, it wouldn't recognize its progeny.

    The toddy has long had a side-hustle as a home remedy. It "gets mentioned by name as a soothing comfort drink for people with particular winter diseases, like colds and flus, as something that was given to soothe people, sometimes in their final moments," said Camper English, a San Francisco-based cocktail and spirits writer and author of the fascinating recent book, "Doctors and Distillers: The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine Spirits, and Cocktails." (If you're making clear cocktail ice in your own freezer, you probably have English's freezing studies to thank.)

    The hot toddy anecdote in his book calls to mind too many more recent stories of overwhelmed health-care personnel: "During the 1918 influenza epidemic, staff at one hospital reported, 'We could give them a little hot whiskey toddy; that's about all we had time to do.' The effectiveness of whiskey against the flu was debated, but many doctors agreed it could soothe the suffering of patients in any case."

    Note the distinction between soothing and curing: Essentially, these poor nurses and doctors were using alcohol as a sedative, not as something they expected to get patients off their deathbeds. I want to make sure that's clear. Not only are the health risks of alcohol abuse clear, but in the wake of a pandemic (are we in the wake? The side-sploosh? The doldrums?), in which people have seized upon bits of data and half-truths to promote horse dewormer, volcanic ash and UV light as "cures" for COVID, I am no longer as tickled by folk remedies as I once was. Snake oil is snake oil, even if the snake you're lickin' is a delicious hot toddy. Or as the disclaimer in English's book puts it: "If you need medicine, talk to your doctor. If you need a cocktail, see your local mixologist."

    But given the bleary haze that can set in during a head-cold, it's little wonder that the light anesthesia provided by the simple toddy is beloved. "I've never once measured the ingredients in a hot toddy," English said. "It's a sloppy drink that you just put stuff in the glass and sip on it. I like the unfussiness — particularly if I am sick and taking it in that condition."

    Since my last bout of COVID and the winter cold I've been expecting any day now, I was feeling, if not healthy as a horse, at least equine-adjacent. So I mixed up a few old-school toddies, mostly with a variety of Highland and Islay Scotches and Irish pot-still whiskies.

    Rarely has something so simple been so pleasing; it seems most any proportion of richly flavored spirit with honey and steaming hot water is delicious. A strip of lemon peel expressed into the mug and dropped in — making it a "skin" rather than a toddy, per the old lingo — was a happy addition.

    If you're aiming to try toddy experiments of your own, here are a few tips:

    — Curate your ingredients. Prefer to keep it simple? It's doubly important that you really like the spirit you're using as a base. Go for something with robust flavor; this is not the place for neutral spirits such as vodka.

    — Watch your proportions. The percentage of the nonalcoholic components to alcohol matters. "If you have two ounces of gin in a saucer cup and pour hot water on it, the ethanol is going to pretty much dominate," Spangler said "You still want to make sure you get all those other flavors, so if you're using a cognac you're going to want to be able to smell the vanilla, the caramel and everything that makes it wonderful and balancing it with other spice elements" in the drink.

    — Take care with both spirit and citrus when applying heat; don't boil them. Alcohol will cook off, and lemon juice can take on rancid notes. A good toddy "pays attention to how the drink will taste and smell when served at a high temperature," Goto said. "Working with heated lemon juice and spirits requires different proportions to be balanced."

    - - -

    Honeyed Hot Toddy

    Active time: 10 minutes | Total time: 15 minutes

    1 serving

    Many upgrades have been made on the simple toddy, which in its early appearances contained nothing more than spirit, sugar and water - and, per early bartending manuals like Jerry Thomas's "How to Mix Drinks," was often served cold. But if you're looking for a simple winter warmer, the combination of a richly flavored whiskey (try your preferred Highland or Islay single malt or an Irish pot still), honey and boiling hot water will steam you right up. Expressing a lemon peel over the surface and dropping it in gets you what Thomas would have called a "skin," but we just call it delicious.

    INGREDIENTS

    2 cups water

    2 ounces whiskey

    1 tablespoon honey

    Lemon peel, for garnish (optional, but recommended)

    Whole nutmeg, for garnish (optional, but recommended)

    DIRECTIONS

    In a small pot or kettle, bring the water to a rolling boil.

    Add the whiskey and honey to a heatproof mug. If the honey sticks to the spoon, hold it over the mug and pour the boiling water slowly over the bowl of the spoon until the honey dissolves off. Continue to add more boiling water to the mug: You want 3 to 4 ounces (about 1/2 cup) water in total.

    If using, express a lemon peel over the surface of the drink, then drop the peel into the mug. Grate a little nutmeg over the top, if using, and serve.

    From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.

    - - -

    Apple Hot Toddy (Modern)

    Active time: 10 minutes; Total time: 15 minutes

    1 serving

    Jerry Thomas's apple toddy recipe, from his classic "How to Mix Drinks" bartender's manual, first published in the late 19th century, calls for half a baked apple. But if you don't feel like waiting 40 minutes for an apple to bake, and then figuring out how to stuff that hot mushy apple into a mug while leaving room for brandy, sugar and boiling water, try this recipe for a nice apple-forward toddy. Use a dark, robust-flavored maple syrup. Note that the mixing technique suggested here, in which you float one half of a Boston shaker inside another that's full of hot water, helps preserve as much heat as possible — if you don't have a Boston shaker, you can make this drink in a small metal bowl set over a small pan of simmering water (a makeshift double-boiler).

    INGREDIENTS

    3 cups water

    1-1/2 ounces apple brandy, such as Laird's

    3/4 ounce maple syrup

    1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

    1/2 ounce apple liqueur, such as Berentzen

    2 dashes Angostura bitters

    One (3-inch) cinnamon stick, for garnish (optional)

    DIRECTIONS

    Thoroughly clean the inside and outside of both tins of a Boston shaker.

    In a small pot or kettle, bring the water to a rolling boil. Fill a heatproof mug with some of the boiling water to keep the mug warm while you make the drink.

    Pour about 1 cup of the boiling water into the smaller tin. Lower the larger tin into the smaller one (it will float in the hot water, but the bottom will be submerged, warming the ingredients). Keep the remaining hot water on the stove over low heat.

    In the floating tin, stir together the apple brandy, maple syrup, lemon juice, apple liqueur and Angostura bitters until combined and warmed through.

    Discard the hot water in the mug, then pour the contents of the shaker tin into the emptied mug. Top with 3 to 4 ounces of the simmering water. Garnish with a cinnamon stick, if using, and serve.

    From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.

    - - -

    This Little Figgy Stayed Home Hot Toddy

    Active time: 10 minutes; Total time: 15 minutes

    1 serving

    In this definitely-not-traditional hot toddy, the rich molasses notes of black rum (try Cruzan Black Strap or Myers's Original Dark) combine beautifully with Liber's spiced fig syrup. Note that the mixing technique suggested here, in which you float one half of a Boston shaker inside another that's full of hot water, helps preserve as much heat as possible — if you don't have a Boston shaker, you can make this drink in a small metal bowl set over a small pan of simmering water (a makeshift double-boiler).

    Storage: Once open, Liber's fig syrup can be refrigerated for up to 4 months.

    Where to Buy: Liber and Co.'s syrups can be found at some drink specialty stores (call to confirm) or online.

    INGREDIENTS

    3 cups water

    2 ounces black rum

    1 ounce Liber & Co.'s Caramelized Fig syrup

    1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

    1 dash Angostura bitters

    Clove-studded lemon wheel for garnish (optional)

    DIRECTIONS

    Thoroughly clean the inside and outside of both tins of a Boston shaker.

    In a small pot or kettle, bring the water to a rolling boil. Fill a heatproof mug with some of the boiling water to keep the mug warm while you make the drink.

    Pour about 1 cup of the boiling water into the smaller tin. Lower the larger tin into the smaller one (it will float in the hot water, but the bottom will be submerged, warming the ingredients). Keep the remaining hot water on the stove over low heat.

    In the floating tin, stir together the rum, fig syrup, lemon juice and Angostura bitters until combined and warmed through.

    Discard the hot water in the mug, then pour the contents of the shaker tin into the emptied mug. Top with 3 to 4 ounces of the simmering water, float the clove-studded lemon wheel on top, if using, and serve.

    From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.

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