Earlier versions of this column misspelled the names of two brands of Scotch whisky, Laphroaig and Lagavulin. They have been corrected.
Spirits: Warm up with a hot toddy
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 3:46 PM
I never imagined I would own a mug that reads, "Being Forty Is Twice as Sexy as Twenty." But now I do. It was given to me last summer by a young friend (who is much closer to 20 than 40) for my milestone birthday. At first I thought, "Ouch!" Then I placed it on the same shelf as my mugs labeled "World's Greatest Dad," "Journalists Do It on Deadline" and "I Hate Mondays" (Garfield the cat).
But now that the weather has turned cold, I'm thinking this might be the perfect mug for drinking hot toddies. A toddy, after all, is not a young man's drink. One does not immediately transition from the youthful folly of, say, Four Loko or a raspberry vodka to mature enjoyment of a hot toddy.
No, one must have lived through enough cold winter nights to truly understand the sublime pleasures of a warm mug with, say, an Islay scotch or pot-still Irish whiskey or cask-strength bourbon, along with the hot water, a little sugar and maybe a twist of lemon peel or perhaps some nutmeg. In my advancing age, I'm beginning to better understand this profoundly simple concoction.
According to David Wondrich in his cocktail history "Imbibe!," a toddy "is a simple drink in the same way a tripod is a simple device. Remove one leg and it cannot stand, set it up properly and it will hold the weight of the world."
"Hot toddy" over the years has become a catch-all for warmed alcoholic drinks.
"For most people, a toddy is how your grandmother made it," says Dan Searing, bar manager at Room 11 in Columbia Heights, who experiments with several toddy variations on his menu.
The traditional version, however, refers specifically to a drink of sugar, hot water and spirit, and it dates to at least the 17th century. "It was often cheaper to heat your drink than to heat your house," Searing says. From the beginning, a toddy involved the local hooch; it might mean Scotch in Scotland or genever if you were Dutch, or rum in Colonial America or applejack if you lived in New Jersey.
Over the past few weeks, I've been trying hot toddies with all sorts of spirits. The first, most important tidbit of toddy technique to learn is this: Always rinse the mug with hot water to warm it before adding any ingredient.
One interesting thing that the toddy reinforces is the importance of water in making drinks, hot or cold. Scotch and water, bourbon on the rocks, even the old fashioned all work on similar principles: A little bit of dilution enhances flavor.
"The hot water will emphasize certain aspects of the aroma that are unexpected," Searing says.
The sweetening aspect of the toddy is also important. Will you use granulated sugar? Demerara? Honey? Maple syrup? Searing replaces sugar with orgeat in his cognac-based French Toddy. In his Caribbean Toddy, with overproof Smith and Cross rum as the spirit, he uses Velvet Falernum as his sweetener. And in the Gingered Rum Toddy, he replaces sugar with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, which pairs beautifully with the dark rum.
In my own experiments, I find that the more flavorful, higher-proof spirits work best. For instance, the 108-proof Wild Turkey Rare Breed has become a go-to toddy. And it's one drink where I favor the peaty Scotches such as Laphroaig or Lagavulin.
I also very much enjoy 100-proof Laird's Straight Apple Brandy in hot drinks. That led me directly to another favorite of early America, the apple toddy, made with a real baked apple. It was "one of the particular treats Americans looked to with which to solace their winters," according to Wondrich, who cites the drink's earliest mention as 1792: "When other drinks of similar vintage fell by the wayside, the Apple Toddy continued into the era of electric light and moving pictures, just as popular as ever."
Of course, the temperance movement put an end to the popularity of apple brandy, as the government chopped down so many of the cider-apple orchards during Prohibition. After repeal, the apple toddy pretty much disappeared from the scene.
Until now, at least in my kitchen. There, you will find me baking apples and stirring them, with apple brandy, into my new mug. And on a cold winter afternoon, comforted by my toddy, I will ponder life's big questions.
For instance: Is 40 truly twice as sexy as 20? Actually, that's an easy question to answer. Indeed it is, young friend. Indeed it is.