Belonging to the broader family of pre-cocktails—those like the julep and the sling, which rely strictly on spirit and sugar, plus water and the occasional grating of nutmeg—the classic toddy has persisted for centuries. Building on one of the drink world’s most universal formulas, its pared-down recipe offers a template that’s ripe for reinterpretation by today’s historically-minded bartenders.
Pinpointing the precise moment when spirits were first mixed with water and sweetener to make a toddy is a bit like seeking out the first person to ever fry an egg; variations of this same mixture emerged in different cultures under different names. To this end, David Wondrich observes in Imbibe that three historic, similar drinks, “a Yankee’s Sling, an Englishman’s Toddy and an Irishman’s Skin might be made in the exact same way.” The distinguishing factor, for the most part, was a matter of temperature: The sling was typically served cold and the toddy most often drunk hot. (A skin, meanwhile, distinguished itself with the addition of lemon peel, but has largely faded from fashion, perhaps because of its unappetizing name.)
Under the name “toddy,” the recipe made its print debut in the Boston Weekly Post Boy in 1750, around the same time that an Annapolis-based doctor of Scottish descent declared it to be “the best drink for health.” Indeed, the toddy in America likely owes its existence to the perennial damp climate and abundance of whisky in 18th-century Scotland, where the Scotch toddy was commonly deployed as a cure for colds before crossing the Atlantic.
As with most historic drinks, exactly where the name derived from remains murky. By one account, a cold version of the drink emerged in British India, where colonists were known to tap and ferment the sap of certain tropical palms. The resulting concoction was called “toddy” after the Hindi word tari, meaning tree sap. Alternatively, the name is thought to derive from the toddy stick, an early, shorter version of the muddler with which sugar was mixed into the namesake drink. This story dubiously attributes the name to Robert Toddy, the proprietor of the Black Horse Tavern, a popular drinking den in colonial-era New York.
What can be said with certainty, however, is that by 1764 when Rhode Island’s Newport Mercury described the toddy as “fashionable,” the recipe had established itself as a popular refreshment in the U.S. and would remain so for more than a century. By 1870, whiskey had become the default base spirit, a trend that continues to this day; its full-bodied flavor holds its own against significant dilution. Today, too, it persists in its best role: as a winter warmer. Highlighting this particular penchant, S.S. Field observes in the 1953 American Drink Book, “If you have never been rocked to sleep on a wild winter’s night by … the plain Hot Toddy—then you may count among your still unnumbered blessings man’s finest achievement in the art of going to sleep.”
Here, a pair of historic toddies and their modern interpretations.
While the original toddy represents the bare minimum of mixology, most modern renditions follow the Scottish tradition of added citrus and spice. To this mixture Simone Goldberg doubles down on the latter with the addition of Grand Marnier and ginger (aptly named, One Hot Ginger). Death & Co.’s Alex Day, meanwhile, adds a measure of Pineau des Charentes to amplify the brandy base in his Gun Club Toddy, while the Dead Rabbit team offers two hybrid toddy renditions: a spiced Wassail-toddy blend, the Lamb’s Wool, and a Hot Buttered Rum-toddy mashup, the Hot Buttered Blackstrap.
Undoubtedly the most visually spectacular member of the toddy family, the Blue Blazer is a simple mixture of sugar, water and whiskey—all set on fire. Though stunning in presentation, by burning off significant amounts of the alcohol, this technique undoubtedly detracts from the resulting drink. The Bergamot Blazer from Seattle’s Andrew Bohrer, on the other hand, achieves the theatrics of the original Blazer with a more palatable end-result.