Food & Drink

Not too shoddy: A mug of hot toddy

Caribbean breeze toddy (recipe is above right) employs a hibiscus tea bag or sachet.
Caribbean breeze toddy (recipe is above right) employs a hibiscus tea bag or sachet. Washington Post

It’s January, and all around me in the warren of cubicles, I can hear the human groundhogs wheezing. Sneeze. Hack, hack, hack. Sniffle, sniffle. Sounds I can’t quite identify: maybe the office heating system struggling to keep up with the cold, maybe someone’s phlegmy lungs.

I try to keep my head down, out of the germ jet stream. I think of the bottle of hand sanitizer I keep in a drawer, a prank one from a puckish colleague, with a label that reads: “Take a sick day, [expletive].” I fantasize about sending it around via the internal mail system.

Also, I think about hot toddies, which for centuries have served as a home remedy for the winter crud. They’re popping up on cocktail menus everywhere right now, mostly because of the redonkulous cold that recently beset Washington. Yeah, yeah, I know: It’s colder in Chicago in spring, colder in Winnipeg, colder in the heart of Kylo Ren. But for Washingtonians, the freeze was brutal, and stepping into a warmly lit place to wrap one’s hands around a steaming mug, one that wafts aromas of booze and lemon and clove into your face, feels great – once, of course, the feeling has returned to your face.

The source of the toddy’s name is arguable; some think it came from Anglicizing the Indian “tari,” a fermented palm wine. But an 1871 article in the New York Times argues no: The “toddy” is so named for Tod’s Well, which once supplied water to much of the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, whose inhabitants are no strangers to the art of mixing whisky and water.

Like most classic quaffs, the toddy has crashed into the craft cocktail movement, so now, beyond many excellent traditional versions, you can find the toddy template being executed with spirits from aquavit to slivovitz to mescal, and all sorts of citrus and sweeteners. I’m personally a big fan of using tea in toddies, which add new flavors to the palette; in the case of the Caribbean Breeze Toddy, tart hibiscus tea stands in for lemon juice.

But the classic toddy is as simple as a spec gets: a couple of ounces of spirit topped with boiling water, a spoonful of honey, a wheel of citrus and a bit of spice. The better variations of the classic – which you should make when you’re healthy and just trying to warm up – lean on good aged spirits. I’m talking overproof, funky aged rums, brandies with oomph, feisty, smoky Islay whiskies, any spirits that get mellowed out by the toddy’s softening haze of honey, lemon and steam.

That’s the healthy person’s classic toddy. If you’re attempting to use the toddy as a cold treatment, when you’re sick and can’t smell or taste anything, don’t waste your good booze. In such moments, the toddy is a good place to bury nominal whiskeys, ones you don’t want to drink much of neat.

I may not be telling you anything you don’t already know about the hot toddy, the specifics of which seem to get passed along in families more often than your average cocktail spec. Many people, after all, have an older relative – one who provides warmth and kindness and a soft, expansive bosom to rest upon, who sees cold symptoms in their loved ones and leaps to provide trusted home remedies. Some may even have a lovely Scottish brogue, and an ancient calico cat.

My Mississippi grandmother, bless her heart, was not this person. She was a poker of wounds, a scorner of human weaknesses, and she hated cats with a vociferous and passionate hate. So, lacking proper toddy tutelage, I first stumbled on toddies in English mystery novels, in which such old biddies appear quite frequently, offering chamomile tea or hot toddies to heartbroken ingénues, retired colonels and sniffly parish priests, just before they solve the 12th brutal locked-room stabbing to happen in their charming hamlet that month.

But as comforting as a toddy may be, the notion of a dose of booze as a cold cure has always struck me as a load of hooey. While lemon and honey have some cold-alleviating properties, alcohol is a dehydrator, which is not good for you. In all my years of head colds, never once has a doctor sent me home with a prescription for shots.

Caribbean breeze toddy

1 serving

This winter warmer replaces the citrus in a classic hot toddy with hibiscus tea, which is tart, floral and a deep, cheery red.

We used Tazo brand Passion Tea (a blend of hibiscus and other botanicals), but you can substitute other hibiscus teas; you should be able to find one at any grocery store with a decent tea selection.

From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.

3 dashes Angostura bitters

3/4 ounce dark rum, such as Plantation

3/4 ounce ginger liqueur

1 hibiscus tea bag or sachet (see headnote)

4 to 5 ounces boiling water

Lemon wheel pierced with whole cloves, for garnish

Combine the bitters, rum and ginger liqueur in a teacup or small mug. Add the tea bag, then pour in the boiling water. Let the drink steep for 4 to 5 minutes, then discard the tea bag. Add the clove-studded lemon wheel and serve.

Nutrition | Per serving: 130 calories, 0 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar

Alpine toddy

1 serving

The liqueur Chartreuse evolved out of a complex recipe – involving hundreds of secret botanicals – for an “elixir of long life” given to the Carthusian order of monks in 1605. This toddy blends the milder, sweeter yellow variation of the liqueur with citrus and chamomile tea.

From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.

2 dashes orange bitters

1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

1 ounce yellow Chartreuse

1 chamomile tea bag or sachet

4 to 5 ounces boiling water

Lemon wheel pierced with whole cloves, for garnish

Combine the bitters, lemon juice and Chartreuse in a teacup or small mug. Add the tea bag, then pour in the boiling water. Let the drink steep for 4 to 5 minutes, then discard the tea bag. Add the clove-studded lemon wheel and serve.

Nutrition | Per serving: 110 calories, 0 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 11 g sugar

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