Flying 2,000 miles across the country back into Denver on Monday, I started to sniffle. Maybe it was the recycled air of the airplane, or the holiday snot-wipings from my three-year-old niece, but warmth and stuffiness were rising somewhere in my respiratory system, like tacky pink insulation getting shot between walls.
Then, as you know, it was under 20 degrees and dropping on the walk to the car. An hour-long jaw-clencher of a drive later and I was at the Boulder Weekly office. Out of the car, into the office, and right back outside to Murphy’s.
There is only one drink for a time like that: the hot toddy.
The story of how the hot toddy came to be has become murky over the years but most drink historians believe it originated in Scotland. The etymology of the word “toddy” is disputed, with some saying it was brought over from India, where it was the name for juice from palm trees, which would later be distilled into spirits — the Oxford English Dictionary cites the origin of toddy as coming from the Hindi, Sanskrit and Marahi words for “palmyra.” The word could have been brought to Scotland by tea traders. Others say it is linked to the water source that supplied Edinborough, Scotland in the 17th century. This account bears support in literally references going back to 1721.
However it came to be called the toddy, the constitution of the drink started as single-malt Scotch whisky, hot water and sugar or honey. Developments in the robust world of toddy-making led to the addition of lemon, cinnamon and cloves. Regionally, the single malt whisky was replaced with rum, brandy, Irish whiskey or bourbon whiskey. And in the Midwestern U.S. and its regional Canadian neighbors, folks will substitute heated ginger ale for the boiling water.
At the root of all discussions regarding the hot toddy is the belief, or myth, that it helps cure or subdue the common cold. The truth probably lies somewhere again in its history — helping to warm bodies on cold nights, it’s easy to see how the toddy fell into the “whiskey on a sore tooth,” and “shot of vodka for a gunshot wound,” crowd.
Concretely though, the honey and steam soothes nasal and throat passages; the alcohol calms you down, which could lower blood pressure, which rises when you’re sick; spices could spark an appetite in a weak stomach; and fruit or citrus could provide Vitamin C and other essential nutrients.
It could. The toddy could be a miracle elixir. But more likely, it’s just a winter warmer that usually makes you feel good.
So what’s the best preparation? Fool around with it. Switch out the honey for agave nectar, brown sugar or demerara sugar. Replace the lemon with lime, grapefruit, tangerine or orange, or add a splash of a citrus liqueur like Campari or Triple Sec. If you’re a sucker for anise, rinse the glass in anisette or absinthe before adding the hot water and liquor and the scent will hit you more than the taste.
Mess around with alcohol levels, too. I like mine heavy on the bourbon, with orange and a splash of the aforementioned Campari — sort of like a hot bourbon negroni.
The best part about the toddy is that there aren’t many ways to mess it up. And even though I’ve still got a walloping sore throat after a round of toddies… heck, I feel alright about it.