Perhaps it’s the cumulative effects of the past year, but increasingly, bartenders are turning to toddies not just as winter warmers, but tonics for the soul. Traditionally comprising little more than whiskey, hot water and a sweetener, today’s toddies frequently feature two or more base spirits in addition to tea blends, housemade modifiers and esoteric roots, herbs and spices. More than ever, it’s critical to dial in the techniques that will ensure that your hot and boozy beverage is a success.
“A good toddy is meant to warm you, not assault your senses,” says Chantal Tseng, a Washington, D.C., bartender and consultant. “It’s important to attain the optimal temperature, use quality ingredients that won’t degrade with heat, and build a balanced drink.” Here’s how to make a better toddy.
“Temperature is one of the ingredients; you need to treat it as such—it says it in the name,” explains Andrew Volk, of Maine’s Portland Hunt + Alpine Club in a PUNCH piece on his perfected take on the Hot Toddy. To achieve the desired temperature, Volk ensures that everything—not only the water—is hot. “You want to get your tools as hot as possible. You want your ingredients as hot as possible. You want to get the glass as hot as possible,” he says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Lindze Letherman, of Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar in Aspen, Colorado, who notes that the drink’s success lies in preheating the cup with boiling water for several minutes before discarding the liquid. “We work at altitude [8,000 feet], so water boils at just under 200 degrees. When combined with fresh boiling water and the room temperature spirits and syrup, the end product is a lovely temperature, so you won’t burn your face off taking a sip.”
Tseng, for her part, favors tea—chamomile, mint, lemongrass, rooibos and chai blends—over plain water in toddies, and she notes that brewing at the correct temperature is important for proper extraction. “Herbal and black teas can be brewed at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, but mint is better prepared in the green tea range of 150 to 180 degrees,” she says. Similarly, if your toddy contains wine, which is more delicate than spirits, Tseng suggests keeping the water in the same temperature range as green tea.
“The draw of a toddy is in many ways its curse,” says Tseng. “We often seek them when we want a curative, and our nasal congestion retains the sharpness of the alcohol through the steam, which can be overwhelming. This is why the quality of spirits used in hot drinks is important—with cold cocktails, the chill masks indiscretions.”
Tseng notes that liquors with harsh mash bills—especially white spirits—are “the main culprits” of steam-induced olfactive assault. She prefers using aged spirits and incorporating small amounts of herbal spirits like amari, or fortified wines like oxidative sherry, sweet vermouth or Madeira. “These wines harken back to another vintage cocktail category, ‘sangaree,’” she says, referring to the 18th-century concoction of wine or ale, cold water and spices. “I also enjoy Calvados, Spanish brandy and aged rums that aren’t too sweet in toddies, especially when combined with lots of spice, citrus oils, and hot water or tea.”
In The Mere Wife toddy, named after author Maria Dahvana Headley’s modern-day adaption of Beowulf, Tseng combines sherry cask–aged Hovding or Linie aquavit with Saveiro Vento do Oeste Madeira, Braulio Alpino amaro, St. Elizabeth allspice dram and hot chai, augmented with “a hefty dose of freshly cut ginger, skin and all.” Garnished with a clove-studded orange peel, the steamy elixir is a trademark modern toddy.
While honey syrup is often the go-to sweetener for toddies, Letherman and her team prefer to lean on housemade syrups that pack a punch, like black pepper or turmeric-ginger, to give hot drinks added nuance and depth. For her Teacup Toddy, Letherman created a spiced Calvados syrup flavored with ginger, cinnamon and sliced apples, which adds body and piquancy.
For the build, Letherman combines three-quarters of an ounce of her Calvados syrup with an equal amount of lemon juice and one-and-a-half ounces of Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey—“It has enough structure to stand up to the sweetness of the syrup without overpowering it,” she says—topped with hot water in one of the bar’s vintage porcelain teacups.
Singed hands are another pitfall of a too-hot toddy. The vessel should be able to withstand high temperature (ceramic, tempered glass, stainless steel) and handles are often encouraged. Tseng gravitates toward “pretty handmade ceramics or Moroccan or Turkish tea glasses; things designed to hold hot liquid without cracking,” she says.
But the effect of a well-chosen glass goes beyond the practical. Letherman, for an example, has an affinity for toddies served in delicate antique teacups or vintage mugs. “I find that toddies are like holiday decorations,” she says. “They really help you get into the spirit of things.