What is a Hot Toddy, Anyway?

When the winter winds are blowing (and your nose is running), there's nothing better than a hot toddy to cure what ails you. But what, exactly is a hot toddy?

Winter gets a bad rap—it’s become known as “cold and flu season.” Much better to think of it as “hot toddy season.” When the winter winds are blowing (and your nose is running), it’s delightful to curl your hands around a hot toddy and breathe in the fragrant, potent steam. Go ahead, breathe it in. It’s actually good for you. People have offered up hot toddies to cold-sufferers for ages. But what, exactly is a hot toddy?

What Is a Hot Toddy?

As with many traditional drinks, there’s no hard-and-fast answer to what’s in a hot toddy, or even where it came from. Depending on which origin story you believe, the first hot toddies were simply a way to defeat cold weather or were seen as medicine from the get-go. According to the most common explanation, hot toddies first appeared in Scotland in the 1700s, where publicans added a splash of boiling water to their drams of whiskey to ward off the brutal northern winters. (Anyone who’s been to Edinburgh in January knows Chicago has a serious challenger for the title of “The Windy City.”) As the story goes, publicans added sweeteners and spices to the drink to make it more palatable to the ladies. Alternate explanations are an Irish physician named Todd who prescribed a hot brandy-based drink, and a hot medicinal drink from India, called a tari, made with fermented tree sap.

How Do You Make a Hot Toddy?

Wherever the drink originally came from, the most common ingredients in a basic toddy are:

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

Combine the ingredients in a mug, then fill the mug to the brim with boiling water, stir, and enjoy (more on the variations later). With the combination of lemon and honey, it’s easy to see why toddies are known as a cure for sniffles and scratchy throats. Whiskey also has a warming effect, as well as encouraging drowsiness, so a hot toddy is just the thing when you’re feeling a little under the weather.

A word of caution—for all the purported medicinal properties of hot toddies, mixing alcohol with actual medicine is not a great idea. If you’re taking prescription drugs or stronger over-the-counter medications, take it easy with the alcohol content in your toddy. You wouldn’t want to have more than one, anyway, as alcohol in quantity won’t create the restful sleep you need.

Mixing it Up

The variations on toddies are almost endless. In Scotland, hot toddies also go by the name “hot whiskey,” indicating that the whiskey is non-negotiable. But in the U.S., especially the south, toddy-makers often use bourbon instead. In the Midwest, it’s often brandy. Sometimes it’s rum. Some toddies don’t contain alcohol at all, like this seasonal Cranberry Hot Toddy.

The sweetener varies, too, depending on local preferences. Straight white sugar is common, as is brown sugar. In Canada and New England, you’ll find hot toddies made with maple syrup. Most hot toddies also include spices like cinnamon, cloves and ginger, in different proportions and combinations. Some people make their toddies with cayenne pepper, to encourage the clearing of the sinuses.

How to Make a Hot Toddy With Tea

It might seem as if the only constant in a hot toddy is plain old boiling water, but not even that is sacred—many hot toddies are made with tea. Spiced teas, like chai or Earl Grey, often do double duty, taking the place of the water and the spices. Try this Tea Toddy, for something deliciously different. (If you’re making a toddy with tea, steep the tea before mixing in the other ingredients.)

So, another way to think about a hot toddy—whether you’re drinking it for pleasure or to relieve your stuffy head—is simply, “Hot drink with stuff I like in it.” Start with the basic recipe and start experimenting. Bartenders across the country are offering up their own distinct recipes, and there’s no reason you can’t do the same at home!

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Hazel Wheaton
Hazel is a writer and editor who has worked in the publishing industry for over 25 years in the fields of travel, jewelry arts and food. As the editor of the Taste of Home Christmas Annual (among other titles), she's in the holiday spirit all year round. An enthusiastic baker, she's known for her cookies, cakes and other baked goods. And she still wishes she could cook like her mother.