Few things are quite as satisfying as a Hot Toddy on a cold day. But if you ask each of your friends how to make one, chances are you’ll get some version of a recipe that includes a combination of lemon, honey, ginger, tea, or cinnamon sticks. Over time, the Toddy has become more of a genre of drink than a specific recipe, so your friends wouldn’t be wrong.
But if you go by the first printed Hot Toddy recipe, they wouldn’t be right, either. Printed in the 1862 edition of Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide, it calls for a vaguely unappetizing combination of sugar, brandy, hot water, and a bit of nutmeg.
Like the Cocktail (better known as the precursor to the Old Fashioned), the Toddy existed centuries before it found its way into print. There’s documented evidence from the 1750s that a Scottish doctor living in Maryland called the Toddy the best drink for health, so we can infer that it was around before that point.
At the time, pharmaceutical medicine hadn’t been invented. Alcohol was used as a preservative for herbal tinctures, and was usually considered to be medicine on its own. It would be sweetened with whatever was available—possibly sugar, but often wild honey—for taste. Spices would add a bit of depth, but were also thought to have healing properties all their own.
Since refrigeration also wasn’t around, citrus fruit and the like would spoil quickly. Though lemon juice adds Vitamin C to the mix, it likely wasn’t a regular part of the drink until more recently.
Before the aphid plague descended on the French grape crops in the 1870s, brandy was the spirit of choice for a lot of Hot Toddies. Once the supply dried up, people started mixing theirs with Scotch or Irish whisky (or bourbon, or rye, or rum—or whatever was available). At that point, it was one of the only ways that Americans consumed Scotch.
What’s In A Name?
Two popular theories exist regarding the Toddy’s name. The first is that it was a bastardization of the name of a drink made from fermented tree sap that was popular in India. As the legend goes, a representative of the East India Company introduced it, and it spread quickly.
The other story, which is probably also false, is that the name was linked to the Todian Springs in Edinburgh. Locally, whisky may have been nicknamed “toddy,” and the water that was heated was pulled from the spring. Put it together, and you’ve got a name.
However its name came about, the Hot Toddy lives on as the easy, warm drink that gets us through the winter.
Hit The Lab
From an adaptation of Jerry Thomas’s recipe in David Wondrich’s Imbibe!
1 tsp sugar
3-4 oz hot water
2 oz spirits
Stir with a spoon.
Modern Hot Toddy
1/2 oz honey
1/2 oz lemon juice
2 oz spirit
Pour all ingredients into a mug. Top with hot water and stir until completely combined.
Created by Erick Castro, Boilermaker (NYC).
½ oz. Campari
½ oz. Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
¾ oz. Cinnamon Syrup
1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
Build ingredients into warm 8 ½ oz. mug and top with boiling water. Garnish with an orange slice.