A toddy is not a young person's drink. One must have lived through enough cold winter nights to truly understand the sublime pleasures of a warm mug with, say, an Islay scotch or a pot-still Irish whiskey or a cask-strength bourbon, along with hot water, a little sugar and maybe a twist of lemon peel or perhaps some nutmeg.
According to David Wondrich in his cocktail history Imbibe!, a toddy "is a simple drink in the same way a tripod is a simple device. Remove one leg and it cannot stand; set it up properly and it will hold the weight of the world."
Over the years, hot toddy has become a catch-all for warmed alcoholic drinks.
"For most people, a toddy is how your grandmother made it," says Dan Searing, bar manager at Room 11 in Washington, D.C. Searing experiments with several toddy variations on his menu.
The traditional version, however, refers specifically to a drink of sugar, hot water and a spirit, and it dates at least as far back as the 17th century.
"It was often cheaper to heat your drink than to heat your house," Searing says.
From the beginning, a toddy involved the local hooch; it might mean Scotch in Scotland, genever if you were Dutch, rum in Colonial America or applejack if you lived in New Jersey.
The first, most important tidbit of toddy technique is this: Always rinse the mug with hot water to warm it before adding any ingredient.
One interesting thing that the toddy reinforces is the importance of water in making drinks, hot or cold. Scotch and water, bourbon on the rocks, even the old fashioned all work on similar principles: A little bit of dilution enhances flavor.
"The hot water will emphasize certain aspects of the aroma that are unexpected," Searing says.
The sweetening aspect of the toddy also is important. Will you use granulated sugar? Demerara? Honey? Maple syrup?
Searing replaces sugar with orgeat (an almond-based syrup) in his cognac-based French toddy. In his Caribbean toddy, with overproof Smith and Cross rum as the spirit, he uses Velvet Falernum, a sweet Caribbean liqueur, as his sweetener. And in the gingered rum toddy, he replaces sugar with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, which pairs beautifully with the dark rum.
In my own experiments, I find that more flavorful, higher-proof spirits work best.
I very much enjoy 100-proof Laird's Straight Apple Brandy in hot drinks. That led me directly to another favorite of early America, the apple toddy, made with a real baked apple. It was "one of the particular treats Americans looked to with which to solace their winters," according to Wondrich, who cites the drink's earliest mention as 1792.
"When other drinks of similar vintage fell by the wayside, the apple toddy continued into the era of electric light and moving pictures, just as popular as ever."
Of course, the temperance movement put an end to the popularity of apple brandy, because the government chopped down so many of the cider-apple orchards during Prohibition. After repeal, the apple toddy pretty much disappeared.
Gingered rum toddy
1/2 cup (4 ounces) hot water, just boiled, plus additional water to warm the mug
11/2 ounces dark rum, such as Gosling's Black Seal
1/2 ounce ginger liqueur, preferably Domaine de Canton
Twist of lemon peel
Warm a cup or mug with a little of the just-boiled water; swirl and discard.
Add rum and ginger liqueur. Stir in just-boiled water. Twist lemon peel over cup to release its oils, then drop it in.
Makes 1 serving.
Nutrition information per serving: 110 calories.
This recipe for an apple toddy was adapted from Dan Searing, a bartender at Room 11 in Washington, D.C.
The drinks may be assembled in the mugs (half an apple for each portion), but the toddy is nicer when you strain out the apple bits.
15 ounces (2 cups minus 2 tablespoons) hot water, just boiled, plus more to warm the mugs
4 teaspoons sugar
2 peeled and cored baked apples
6 ounces applejack or apple brandy
Freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish (optional)
Warm 4 mugs with a little of the just-boiled water; swirl and discard. Combine sugar with a splash (about 1 ounce) of just-boiled water in a medium bowl, stirring to dissolve. Add baked apples; muddle them thoroughly. Add applejack or apple brandy and mix well, then stir in 12 ounces water.
Use a fine-mesh strainer to immediately strain equal portions of liquid into the 4 mugs, discarding solids. Top each portion with 1/2 ounce hot water, and stir. Sprinkle with nutmeg, if desired.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information serving: 150 calories.
Adapted from Imbibe! by David Wondrich