There is something absolutely thrilling to people about looking at fossils in a museum. Staring up at the skeletons of huge, ancient lizards allows your imagination to wander. What did they really look like? What sort of coloration did they have? You can stand there and look at the artists renderings of them, what the scientists tell you they should look like based on what they know about modern lizards and how they might have changed over the years. However, you can also look at them and imagine what you think they might have looked like. Add some spines, or smoother skin, or different colors, absolutely anything to suit your fancy. A simple structure to allow your imagination to play and an ancient history are also part of cocktail culture. January 11th is a day where we celebrate one of those cocktail dinosaurs; something that is more of a skeletal idea than a fully evolved, finished recipe. It is the hot toddy, and January 11th is National Hot Toddy Day.
The toddy palm is common in India, and that is where the first bones of the cocktail can be found. The locals would tap the trees to get the sap and they allow the sap to ferment in the warm sun, creating a palm wine. If you take the wine and distill it, you get brandy; if you take palm wine and distill it, it becomes arrack. India is a very hot country, and the British were not used to that sort of heat. The colonists would drink anything to cool off and get away from the heat. Fortunately the natives already had something ready for the overheated British; a drink called “panch”, which is Indian for “five”, supposedly the number of ingredients contained in the beverage. It had water, some spices, lemon, sugar, and the arrack. It watered everything down, was refreshing, and made the days a little more bearable. It was so good they brought this panch back to Britain with them, but used the name of the tree that it originally came from. The drink became known as a toddy. A cold toddy.
The toddy continued to evolve once it made it north. Britain is a chilly, damp place. Cool and refreshing drinks do not go over as well there, since the environment is chilly more often than not. They are trying to figure out ways to warm up, not cool down. Water, spices, sugar…sounds like a good hot cup of tea to me. They were now roughly five thousand miles away from the arrack that was used in the original recipe. Being British, they kept calm and carried on, substituting the arrack for whiskey and gin. Some stories say that this mixture of sugar, water, and lemon was used to soften the overly peaty and strong Scotch whiskeys in the 18th century, making them more favorable to women. England loves their gin, and the juniper in the gin went well with some spices that are found in tea. Yes, tea had also become an element to add to this loose recipe, mixed more to the taste of the drinker and a general idea than any specific recipe. The bones of the recipe were still there, but the flavors and the details adapted themselves to the environment.
When the British travelled to America, the evolution continued. Scotch was not as easily available, but there was no shortage of liquors ready to take its place. Traditional liquors like gin and brandy were still very popular in the colonies, but newcomers like rum, bourbon, and rye whiskey were growing in popularity. There was also more access to sweeteners like honey and molasses, not just the sugar that was more traditional in Great Britain. In colonial times, sugar was not granular; it was brought in blocks and you had chip off and crush what you needed for the drink. The stick that was used (in some of the tales) was called a toddy stick, another possibility for where the name came from. Tea was still readily available to mix all of the ingredients in. The one major thing the colonies added was a standardization of the size. It went from something that could be made in a mug, a quart, a punch bowl, or any large container for multiple servings. By the end of the 19th century, famous bartender Jerry Thomas had compressed the cocktail into a cup. Everything had also start to become a little more codified. The revolving carousel of liquors finally stopped at whiskey (though rum and gin was still found to be more popular in New England), the sweetener became sugar, and the tea went away for a while in favor of hot water (though now tea or spice is considered part of the drink).
What kept such a simple, erratic cocktail so popular over such a long period of time? While the flexibility of the drink helped keep it popular for a wide range of palates and environments, the biggest reason was the supposed medicinal purposes. People would drink it when they were under the weather, which made them feel a little better for a while. It was hot, which helps loosens up mucous and helps you breathe a little easier; if you use tea, you also get the benefits tea brings. The acid in the lemon adds some vitamin C, and using honey helps to coat your throat as well as the other medical benefits honey has. Alcohol has been used for years either as a medicine (as vodka was in Poland and Russia) or as a big part of medicine (like it was at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century). The problem of using alcohol as medicine too often is that the cure can be worse than the disease. Yes, the alcohol makes you feel a little better for a short time, but it is dehydrating. It may leave you feeling a little worse than before you drank it. Drinking too many will give you a hangover. A small dose before bed, however, can help you sleep a little better while the rest of the ingredients go to work. A hot toddy will help to relieve some of the symptoms of a cold or flu, but it is not a cure. You should still use medicine for that.
1.5 oz. whiskey
.5 oz. lemon juice
.75 oz. simple syrup
4-6 oz. of hot water
Tea bag or other spices (cinnamon or nutmeg are traditional)(optional)
Brew the cup of tea to your taste. In a cup, stir together the whiskey, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Add the tea, and then stir the mixture a few more times. You can garnish it with a lemon wedge or cinnamon stick. You can also substitute hot water or cider for the tea, and rum or brandy for the whiskey.
As this mysterious cocktail passed from continent to continent, it changed and adapted to the needs of the environment it was in. With all of the changes it made, from a cooling drink in India to a warming drink in America, the basics never changed. The skeleton of a drink was created that maintained a certain simplicity while emphasizing a world of possibilities. You can usually order one at a bar (can you imagine the whiskeys you can choose from at The Century Bar for this one?), but why? Wrap yourself in your warmest blanket, find a great book, and settle in with this steaming cup of goodness next time you feel a little under the weather. What you put in it is all in your imagination, as long as you stick to the basic structure. Happy National Hot Toddy Day!