Caribbean Breeze Toddy; see recipe, below. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)

It's January, and all around me in the warren of cubicles, I can hear the human groundhogs wheezing. Sneeze. Hack, hack, hack. Sniffle, sniffle. Sounds I can't quite identify: maybe the office heating system struggling to keep up with the cold, maybe someone's phlegmy lungs.

I try to keep my head down, out of the germ jet stream. I think of the bottle of hand sanitizer I keep in a drawer, a prank one from a puckish colleague, with a label that reads: "Take a sick day, [expletive]." I fantasize about sending it around via the internal mail system.

Also, I think about hot toddies, which for centuries have served as a home remedy for the winter crud. They're popping up on cocktail menus everywhere right now, mostly because of the redonkulous cold that recently beset Washington. Yeah, yeah, I know: It's colder in Chicago in spring, colder in Winnipeg, colder in the heart of Kylo Ren. But for Washingtonians, the freeze was brutal, and stepping into a warmly lit place to wrap one's hands around a steaming mug, one that wafts aromas of booze and lemon and clove into your face, feels great — once, of course, the feeling has returned to your face.

The source of the toddy's name is arguable; some think it came from Anglicizing the Indian "tari," a fermented palm wine. But an 1871 article in the New York Times argues no: The "toddy" is so named for Tod's Well, which once supplied water to much of the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, whose inhabitants are no strangers to the art of mixing whisky and water.

Like most classic quaffs, the toddy has crashed into the craft cocktail movement, so now, beyond many excellent traditional versions, you can find the toddy template being executed with spirits from aquavit (at Blue Duck Tavern) to slivovitz (at Ambar in Clarendon) to mezcal (at Tico), and all sorts of citrus and sweeteners. I'm personally a big fan of using tea in toddies, which add new flavors to the palette; in the case of the Caribbean Breeze Toddy, tart hibiscus tea stands in for lemon juice.

But the classic toddy is as simple as a spec gets: a couple of ounces of spirit topped with boiling water, a spoonful of honey, a wheel of citrus and a bit of spice. The better variations of the classic — which you should make when you're healthy and just trying to warm up — lean on good aged spirits. I'm talking overproof, funky aged rums, brandies with oomph, feisty, smoky Islay whiskies, any spirits that get mellowed out by the toddy's softening haze of honey, lemon and steam.

That's the healthy person's classic toddy. If you're attempting to use the toddy as a cold treatment, when you're sick and can't smell or taste anything, don't waste your good booze. In such moments, the toddy is a good place to bury nominal whiskeys, ones you don't want to drink much of neat.

Alpine Toddy; see recipe, below. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)

I may not be telling you anything you don't already know about the hot toddy, the specifics of which seem to get passed along in families more often than your average cocktail spec. Many people, after all, have an older relative — one who provides warmth and kindness and a soft, expansive bosom to rest upon, who sees cold symptoms in their loved ones and leaps to provide trusted home remedies. Some may even have a lovely Scottish brogue, and an ancient calico cat.

My Mississippi grandmother, bless her heart, was not this person. She was a poker of wounds, a scorner of human weaknesses, and she hated cats with a vociferous and passionate hate. So, lacking proper toddy tutelage, I first stumbled on toddies in English mystery novels, in which such old biddies appear quite frequently, offering chamomile tea or hot toddies to heartbroken ingénues, retired colonels and sniffly parish priests, just before they solve the 12th brutal locked-room stabbing to happen in their charming hamlet that month.

But as comforting as a toddy may be, the notion of a dose of booze as a cold cure has always struck me as a load of hooey. While lemon and honey have some cold-alleviating properties, alcohol is a dehydrator, which is not good for you. In all my years of head colds, never once has a doctor sent me home with a prescription for shots.

Still, prolonged sickness can lead one to magical thinking. Last summer, I caught a bad cough that simply would not go away. After three months, multiple inhalers, several rounds of antibiotics and a couple of breathing tests, I had grown desperate. Friends and colleagues began to stand in for that comforting matron I had always wished for, offering advice: stretches to open the lungs, herbal teas, buckwheat honey, steam treatments.

I recalled interviewing Tim Master, the national brand ambassador for Chartreuse, the famed spirit made by monks high in the Alps, from a centuries-old recipe for an "elixir of long life." The monks make a 138-proof variation called Elixir Vegetal. "Anyone I've ever met who lives in the French countryside tends to remember the elixir as something their mom gave them on a sugar-cube when they were sick," Master told me, noting that he'd seen it used to treat conditions as diverse as bee stings and upset stomach.

The Elixir Vegetal isn't sold domestically, but thanks to friends who toted some home for me, I have a bottle. So I whipped up a toddy using chai tea, buckwheat honey, rye whiskey, lemon and a teaspoon of the stuff.

And it did alleviate my coughing. I was able to sleep decently for the first time in a while.

But the cough was back by midmorning, which led me to speculate that any curative value of the booze is mostly about adding enough to put you temporarily out of your misery. Beyond that, you might as well just stick to hot tea, honey and lemon — unless you're looking not for a cure, but simply for a good, warming winter drink. In that case, try the Alpine Toddy, which pairs the softer, honeyed yellow Chartreuse with herbal chamomile tea; it tastes like winter, but flashes the golden color of spring.

You know what finally cured my cough, by the way? A week in Mexico with my family. I'm not saying I'd argue that the margarita is the true toddy, but I'd certainly recommend a combination of ocean breezes, citrus and sunlight to all the people I can hear snorting and hacking in nearby cubicles. Seriously. Go now. Take a Mexico. For all our sakes.

Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.


Caribbean Breeze Toddy. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)

Alpine Toddy. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)

Caribbean Breeze Toddy

1 serving

We used Tazo brand Passion Tea (a blend of hibiscus and other botanicals), but you can substitute other hibiscus teas; you should be able to find one at any grocery store with a decent tea selection.

Recipes from Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan


3 dashes Angostura bitters

¾ ounce dark rum, such as Plantation

¾ ounce ginger liqueur

1 hibiscus tea bag or sachet (see headnote)

4 to 5 ounces boiling water

Lemon wheel pierced with whole cloves, for garnish


Combine the bitters, rum and ginger liqueur in a teacup or small mug. Add the tea bag, then pour in the boiling water. Let the drink steep for 4 to 5 minutes, then discard the tea bag. Add the clove-studded lemon wheel and serve.

Alpine Toddy

1 serving


2 dashes orange bitters

½ ounce fresh lemon juice

1 ounce yellow Chartreuse

1 chamomile tea bag or sachet

4 to 5 ounces boiling water

Lemon wheel pierced with whole cloves, for garnish


Combine the bitters, lemon juice and Chartreuse in a teacup or small mug. Add the tea bag, then pour in the boiling water. Let the drink steep for 4 to 5 minutes, then discard the tea bag. Add the clove-studded lemon wheel and serve.

More from Food:

The 7 essential cocktails every drinker should know how to make

You want to make good cocktails at home. Here's what you need to get started.

We've all had Irish coffee we hated. But when made well, it's a beautiful thing.

Spirits Column archive