Before central heating and electricity, heating a cup of spirit with a hot poker was one of the more effective ways to warm up in the winter. The warmth soothed the senses and the alcohol mellowed the mind. But hot drinks are also delicious, which is why they survive well into our era of radiators. Jerry Thomas — the father of bartending as a skilled profession — allegedly even moved back to to the cold Northeast, after years bartending around the South, so he could once again live the pleasure of a hot drink on a cold day. So powerful was his call to warm a chill that he invented drinks like his famous Blue Blazer, a cocktail so hot it strikes fear into the hearts of men.
Below are variations on the classic hot toddy, and some tips on how to make your own with what you’ve got in the spice cabinet.
To add to the coziness of drinking something hot, alcohol also enters our bloodstream quicker when it’s drunk warm. This warming from the inside is especially beloved in damp winter climates, like England with its Wassail, France with vin chaud, and cold Sweden’s glogg.
The spices we think of as pairing with hot drinks also have homeopathic healing powers attributed to them. Take cinnamon for example. Not only does a whiff boost our mental functions, it also has trace nutrients like iron, manganese and calcium. I’ve always liked healing foods that taste good, and to me, warming spices are some of my favorite flavors.
I like to make hot cocktails the way I make teas at home, by tossing herbs into a pot, letting it steep in hot water, then straining out the leaves and roots before adding an ounce or two of alcohol. Experiment with your favorite roots, I go with a few whole leaves of dried or fresh herbs, like lemon verbena, mint, rosemary, lavender, or thyme, a pinch of cinnamon, cloves, or a cracked cardamom pod and perhaps some dried ginseng root, immune-boosting astragalus, gentian, or burdock.
Brown spirits like rum and most whiskeys work easiest in hot drinks, but with a little creativity, any spirit can be sneaked into a hot drink, like the Gin Toddy recipe below. A spoonful of honey, maple syrup, or a fruit preserve helps to take the edge off, and a squeeze of fresh lemon gives vibrancy. Beyond that I’ll often add a few dashes of bitters, and maybe a slice of citrus or apple.
Another approach to fixing hot drinks, especially when you have a few friends over, is to stir up a pot on the stove with spice-infused cider , milky chai, or a rejuvenating ginger-ginseng-honey-lemon mash-up that you can add your choice of booze to.You don’t want to heat up alcohol over the fire (it will burn up, you’ll just end up with a non-alcoholic, rum-flavored tea). The trick is to ladle the steeped liquid through a strainer and into a mug, then add the alcohol and stick with a cinnamon stick.
Here are a few recipes, updated and more delicious than a plain cup of whiskey and hot water:
Gin Toddy by me
2 oz gin (I use Bombay Sapphire or Portland’s New Deal’s Gin #3)
1/2 oz palm sugar syrup (2 parts palm sugar to 1 part boiling water stirred until fully dissolved)
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
Stir with a licorice root stick (the herb, not the candy)
This drink is as easy to assemble as it is tasty. Palm sugar is available at most health food stores, and has more enzymes than sugar, to aid in digestion. The licorice root stick will soften nicely after yielding a bit of flavor to the drink, making it perfect for chewing.
Pear Brandy Toddy by Daniel Osborne of Central, in Portland, Oregon
1 oz pear brandy (like Clear Creek)
3/4 oz Becherovka (a Czech bitters liqueur flavored with anise, cinnamon and 32 other herbs)
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz 2:1 honey syrup (or about a half teaspoon honey)
1 dash Aromatic bitters (Dutch’s or Angostura)
Add all the ingredients into a wine glass or a mug. Garnish with a stick of fresh thyme, a pear slice pierced with cloves, a cinnamon stick and lemon peel, then top with approximately 4 oz of hot water.
Home on the Range by Greg Seider of Summit Bar in New York City
2 oz Buffalo Trace bourbon
2 oz apple cider
1/2 cardamom agave syrup**
1/4 oz lemon
Combine all ingredients in a mug and top with 4–6 ounces or hot water and stir. Garnish with a dash of chipotle chili powder on top.
**1/8 cup cardamom pods. Coarse grind them add 8 oz agave to 8 oz water. Bring to boil. Remove from heat, and cover for 20 minutes then strain out the cardamom pods. This syrup will last a while in the fridge.
Boozy Mulled Cider (makes about 30 servings)
1 gallon of fresh apple cider
2 bottles of amber rum (Appleton’s VX) or a bourbon like Buffalo Trace
2 apples cored and thinly sliced
4 cinnamon sticks
1 small handful of whole cloves (about 20)
1 small handful of cracked black peppercorns (about 25)
5 cracked green cardamom pods
2 tablespoons of freshly grated ginger
Optionally, you can also add 1 cup of lemon juice (and their peels) and 1 cup of brown sugar.
Combine all ingredients — except the booze — in a pot over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, for 30–40 minutes.
Turn off heat, or turn on lowest possible, and add liquor of choice, stirring well. Strain to order with a tea strainer, OR put all the spices (except cinnamon) in a tea sack in the pot. Serve within 3 hours of making.
Hot Apple Toddy (The single serving version of a pot of hot mulled cider.)
2 ounces amber rum (like Appleton’s VX) or bourbon (like Buffalo Trace)
1 tbsp Morris Kitchen Boiled Apple Cider Syrup
2 black peppercorns
1 cracked green cardamom pod
1 slice fresh ginger
1 cinnamon stick for stirring
1 apple slice
Put the boiled apple cider syrup, ginger, clove, black peppercorns and cracked cardamom pod in bowl, a glass liquid measuring cup, or tea pot and add 5-6 ounces of boiling water. Let this steep for 5–7 minutes, then strain into a mug or wine glass. Add rum or bourbon, and garnish with an apple slice and a stick of cinnamon.