“Toddy time.” If that phrase conjures up an image of an elderly woman covered in a shawl sitting by the fire, then it is time you had a toddy. All throughout the South, the hot toddy is gracing winter cocktail menus, and though classic, it is anything but outdated.
We must admit, it is a drink with a long history—a sort of early Nyquil, if you will. According to David Wondrich in Imbibe: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, A Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar, it is “the irreducible minimum of true mixology”:
Apparently of Scottish origin … the fashionable Toddy—as the Newport (Rhode Island) Mercury dubbed it in 1764—was a fixture of American tippling for a century or more. It didn’t hurt that, unlike Punch, the Toddy required no perishable ingredients or complicated formulas. Rum (or whiskey if you were out on the frontier, brandy if you were posh, applejack if you were from New Jersey, gin if you were of African or Dutch extraction, and so on). As much sugar as you liked or had—no worries here about balancing out the acidity of lemons or limes. Water, hot or cold. If you had some nutmeg, fine; if not, fine too. If there was no sugar, honey or even blackstrap molasses would do. You could make it strong or you could make it weak and sip it all day, as John Ferdinand Smyth found the Virginia planters doing in the 1780s.
With the South’s overall agrarian nature, folk remedies were the norm, and while the toddy was certainly not exclusive to the South, it was common, says Kay Moss, an expert on 18th century folkways and author of Southern Folk Medicine: 1750-1820: “The toddy was popular in the back settlement frontier of the time. I’ve seen it listed multiple times in records for tavern offerings, so it was usually available to travelers, often as a restorative thing.”
“The toddy, when defined loosely,” she explains, “can also been seen as the way so many medicines were served. In the polypharmaceutical approach of the time, up to 20 ingredients could be administered, and these administrations were either through an opium or alcohol base (or both). In my research, I’ve seen warm alcohol drinks show up most commonly with a base of homemade brandy, or rum from the West Indies.”
Since toddy tipping was associated either loosely—or more specifically through herbal additions—with restoration, the hot toddy was even common to serve to children on occasion. (During elementary school, I remember spending the night at a girlfriend’s house, and we had to stop by the liquor store to purchase Jack Daniel’s for a toddy since she was coming down with a sore throat. And I’m not that old, nor did I grow up on the Southern frontier. Cough, cough.)
“It’s a warming whiskey drink, and it’s curative, restorative,” says barman Evan Christy of Bar Mash in Charleston, S.C. He has been making hot toddies since his days working behind the stick at The Belfast Mill, a small Irish pub in Charlotte’s Third Ward, where Barry Leeson kept an electric kettle behind the bar for the mill’s toddy: a simple Tullamore Dew, water, brown sugar, and lemon concoction. “We made a lot of that one, and since then, I’ve always made them. There is a lot of room for experimentation.”
Christy stays with the restorative theme in his variations, adding warming spices and teas. He’s made everything from a peppermint tea-infused toddy with a punch of Ancho Reyes (a spicy liqueur), to his current favorite, which includes chai tea and amaro.
Gary Crunkleton of The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill, N.C., is more of a purist, but that by no means suggests that his toddy is no fun. The bar serves a classic Jerry Thomas cocktail, the Blue Blazer, which starts with Scotch and heats up when Crunkleton (or one of his bartenders) ignites the liquor.
“Dale Degroff taught me that when you ignite the liquor, you lose only about five percent of the alcohol,” Crunkleton explains. “And I don’t use any water. I don’t want dilution, but instead want the ingredients to speak for themselves. We serve it in a thick absinthe glass that’s been warmed; glass is a great insulator.”
Crunkleton says that the term “toddy” can mean a lot to a lot of people, similar to how, at one bar “martini” can mean anything in a martini glass, where at another, the definition is narrowed to only that beverage of gin and vermouth.
Whether classic or topped with chai tea, a hot toddy is bound to stave off that mid-winter chill. And it just might start a new trend in your local watering hole.
“The toddy is one of those things that once one person orders it, other people do too, because once you see it on a cold day, you want one,” Christy says.
Chai Tea Hot Toddy
from Evan Christy of Mash, Charleston, S.C.
1 ½ oz. Wild Turkey 101
¼ oz. Allspice Dram
¼ oz. Montenegro
Squeeze of lemon
Clove-studded lemon slice for garnish
Pour spirits in a glass coffee mug, add juice of one lemon wedge, then top with fresh Chai tea. Float clove-studded lemon slice as garnish if desired.
Yield: 1 drink
Stephanie Burt is a writer based in Charleston, S.C. and host of the new podcast, The Southern Fork. She thinks anytime is a good time for a toddy, and you can find her and her musings at @beehivesteph.