Kick Your Cold with This Hot Toddy Recipe

A traditional remedy for the common cold is also delicious: a cozy hot toddy. But why should a cocktail make you feel better? We investigate the science behind the hot toddy, and share our favorite recipe.

When I was growing up, I loved hearing my grandma’s health tips, and follow them to this day. Drink a glass of warm milk with cinnamon before bed to help you sleep. Apply sunscreen to the tops of your hands, not just your face. And always, when you feel a cold coming on, get the hot toddy ingredients ready. Her famous hot toddy recipe with whiskey still gets me through the worst of my winter colds and sniffles. Here’s the science behind the tradition, plus a recipe.

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Which Hot Toddy Ingredients Should I Use?

Hot toddies contain fresh lemon juice, honey, boiling water, and usually whiskey, the original ingredient dating back to the 1700s. That said, you may use bourbon (a Southern custom), brandy (popular in the Midwest), or even rum (if you like a bit of spice).

Each ingredient plays a role in soothing a cold or flu:

  • Hot water makes the drink hot, obviously, and according to a 2008 study (and centuries of conventional wisdom), hot drinks can relieve runny nose, sore throat, sneezing and even fatigue. (Perhaps why chicken noodle soup is so popular.)
  • Honey has mild antibacterial properties and is known to soothe coughs and sore throats (and offers lots of other health benefits, too).
  • Lemon contains antibacterial properties and is rich in vitamin C, which can help fight infections.

But what about the alcohol…is that good for a cold?

Make sure to eat plenty of these foods when you have a cold.

Does Whiskey Help a Cough?

In the 19th and early 20th century, alcohol was popularly used as medicine: Many historic cocktails were invented by apothecaries! It’s likely that the alcohol content in the hot toddy derives from that traditional use.

Today, whiskey or bourbon is added to a toddy to relax the drinker, and to encourage a drowsy state for sleep. (Nyquil and other cough medicines still contain alcohol for that same reason.) Since most coughing fits can intensify at night, it’s helpful to feel relaxed and drowsy to help you drop off rather than stay up tossing and turning (and hacking). Dig deeper into the science behind the hot toddy.

How to Make a Hot Toddy

You’ll need:

  • 2 Tbsp. whiskey
  • 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp. honey
  • Boiling water

Pour whiskey into a mug and stir in honey and lemon juice. Top with boiling water and give it a good stir to dissolve the honey. As you wait for the drink to cool enough to sip, enjoy the steam, which can ease congestion. Once it’s cooled down a bit, drink up: My grandma always said half the benefit of the toddy was in the heat. You should feel warm and just a touch drowsy after drinking a toddy. Off to bed!

Note that only a touch of whiskey is called for in the recipe. You should avoid drinking too much alcohol when you’re sick, especially if you’re taking any cold or flu medicine. Plus, high amounts of alcohol will disrupt the sleep you need to feel better. If you’d rather, you can skip the whiskey altogether.

We’ve got more recipes to soothe your cold.

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Kelsey Rae Dimberg
A former in-house editor at Taste of Home, Kelsey now writes articles and novels from her home in Milwaukee. She's an avid cook, reader, flâneur, and noir fanatic. Her debut novel, Girl in the Rearview Mirror, will be published in June 2019 by William Morrow.