“A toddy can—and should—be a baseboard for your favorite fall and winter flavors,” says Stephen Bielawski, bar manager at Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance. “A good one should leave you with a cozy feeling, but a little Scotch never hurts, either.”
Indeed, the toddy template of whisky, lemon, honey and hot water has, for centuries, been used as a panacea, although its origins are still subject to debate. The hot beverage has been attributed to colonial-era Indian plantation workers who consumed palm wine derived from tree sap (known as tari in Hindi—toddy is thought to be a corruption of the word), as well as 18th-century Scots who drank warmed whisky to suppress the cold. Whisky historian and former Whisky Magazine editor Charles Maclean, however, disagrees, claiming that the toddy was devised in the 18th century to mask the harsh taste of inferior Scotch; flavoring agents such as sugar, spices and dates were also used to improve the flavor.
Whatever its origins, the toddy presents a versatile template that’s easy to riff on at home. Bartender and U.S. Sherry Week Ambassador Chantal Tseng is drawn to the category for its therapeutic attributes, especially when modified with ingredients like amari, which have historic curative properties. “I’m of the school where I believe that certain alcoholic combinations can indeed heal the body,” she says.
For Tseng’s Dark Materials toddy, she combines oloroso sherry with fernet, absinthe, ginger and dandelion root tea, for a restorative tonic with bitter, earthy and floral notes. Similarly, Annie Williams Pierce, bartender and co-owner of Law Bird in Columbus, Ohio, makes an amontillado sherry and Amaro Nonino-based toddy, called Shoreside with Georgia, with a fragrant oolong tea that she calls, “straight-up O’Keefe floral magic.”
PUNCH’s own Chartreuse Toddy takes the template on a detour through France, calling on a base of Cognac supplemented with herbaceous green Chartreuse for a deluxe spin on the usual toddy trappings, while Bielawski prefers more classic interpretations like his Mrs. Rabbit’s Bedtime Toddy, which melds blended Scotch or Irish whisky with peated Laphroaig, Suze, lemon, honey, ginger and chamomile tea.
“I take it back to my childhood kitchen, when my mom would always have a pot of water full of citrus peels, spices and ginger simmering on the store during the winter months,” says Bielawski. “Equal parts fragrant, calming and inebriating is a good way to go about it.”
For proof that the toddy template knows no bounds, look no further than Shannon Tebay’s Hot for Teacher, which she co-created with Death & Co colleague Matthew Belanger in 2015. Her tiki-fied take combines aged and Jamaican rums with banana liqueur, a proprietary “Improved” Gardenia Mix and a sugar-based spice mix containing allspice dram. “Don’t be afraid of sweeteners when making toddies, be it honey, demerara, ginger or otherwise,” she advises. “You’re adding a lot more water than you would to a regular cocktail, and a higher sugar content will make the drink richer and give it better texture.”
When it comes to actually enjoying a toddy, Tseng, who describes herself as a “dedicated tea drinker,” sees it as a ritual. “Hot drinks are meant to be sipped slowly. You’re holding the mug to warm your hands, blowing on the liquid to temper it, inhaling the aroma,” she explains. “Cold beverages may refresh and revive us, but heated drinks allow us to release the tension of the day, in order to be better able to conquer the next.”
In other words, go make yourself a toddy.