The History Of The Hot Toddy.
Many of these old drinks that we still make today are hard to find information on—hot buttered rum, hot ale flip, buttered beer, toddies, etc. Most actual written recipes are from the mid-1800s and later. Books mainly were published for histories and stories, but skills and trades were just taught from master to apprentice. There were a few, but not like there is today. One tries to piecemeal as much as they can together.
In a 1769 book, “A Dissertation On The Oleum Palmae Christi,” by Peter Canvane mentions adding medicines to “warm milk punch, common punch, or toddy, in which a hot poker has been quenched.” as ways of administering medication to those who complain about the taste. (Total side note. All the older English writing has the long “S” character ( “ʃ” ), but I changed it to a standard “s” in the quote, it looks kinda like an f, but it’s just another symbol for s that we don’t use anymore. That’s why the Declaration of Independence looks like they spelled everything wrong.) In a 1783 fictional book “Smyth’s Tour of The United States” by J.F.D. Smyth notes that his character likes to “take a draught of Bumbo, or toddy, a liquor composed of water, sugar, rum, and nutmeg.” There was also a funny romance story from 1741 I found, where a beautiful lady walks into the kitchen and asks the lord of the house for a toddy. “Would you like it hot or cold? warm I replied.”
All silliness aside, the point I am trying to get at is that there is no actual formal recipe to make a toddy but the parts and qualities. There are as many toddies as there are people. The parts matter, so based on the works I referenced, let’s break those parts down.
- The first reference points to the colonial American way of heating drinks. Not by using a stove but by using a hot fireplace poker, often called a toddy rod or loggerhead. In a home setting, a stove probably was used as it was already fired up for cooking food, but in a tavern, it was more efficient to place iron rods in the already running fireplace. Rather than having a stove run all night to be ready for the occasional warm drink, they could dip the toddy rod into the drinks people request warmed.
- The second reference gives us the ingredient of the toddy. The four parts are water, sugar, rum, and nutmeg. Now any spice will do, but it is worth noting that only nutmeg is mentioned in the early 1862 Bartenders’ guide when adding spice toddies.
- The third reference shows us that toddies were served both hot and cold and sometimes warm. Now I am willing to bet that a cold toddy was not a heated one. Commercial refrigeration was not invented until the 1850s, so access to ice blocks was mainly limited to businesses. And while they did have ice houses that saved ice for most of the summer (some stayed in use up to the 1930s), something as special as the ice was not going to be wasted on a single drink.
So for this hot toddy recipe, I will stick to those points. It used only rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg. It was heated up with a toddy rod. Almost every recipe you find has lemon juice added it to add to its medicinal qualities, but since that is not traditional to the 18th or 19th century, I will leave it out and stick to the classic structure. On a fun side note, did you know the original name for the muddler was the toddy stick? That’s right, It was based on the pestle from the mortar and pestle but made of wood so it wouldn’t shatter glass cups. The shape was perfect for smashing together fruits, spices, and sugar cubes.
Do Hot Toddies Actually Help You Feel Better When You Are Sick?
So the short answer is, I guess… sure. The long answer is it depends on what ailment you hope to relieve. Western medicine has come a long way since the 18th century, but there are three reasons a person makes a hot toddy today other than tasting good. 1). When they have a soar throat. 2). When their sinuses are congested, and 3). It just feels nice to cozy up with one during the winter. The main health benefit of a hot toddy comes from honey; if you use sugar, you are missing most of the benefits of a hot toddy. Honey is pretty awesome nectar and has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. In some lab studies, if it is found to reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines, this combined with the warm steam from the drink can help reduce congestion as that is an inflammation of the sinuses. Or you can pop some Sudafed during the day and Benadryl at night, as those are some of the present-day gold standards of over-the-counter anti-inflammation medication.
Ignoring mechanical irritation of one’s throat like screaming a bunch, the most common reason for a sore throat is an infection, and the body’s natural response to infection is inflammation. So again, it’s honey with that anti-inflammatory response, or you could pop an ibuprofen or naproxen as they would be a more effective treatment. And the last point is it just feels good to cozy up with one, and it does. Being cozy makes you feel happy, but did you also know that nutmeg is a hallucinogen. The dose is so low that it’s hard to credit any effect on the brain to the nutmeg, but it does contain myristicin, making people trip in large amounts. Maybe that good feeling is just a psychedelic nut and alcohol-induced surface. Some people are susceptible to nutmeg and its active chemicals and get pounding headaches from even the smallest amount. So don’t ever use too much nutmeg, don’t use it to get high, and be careful as it can be dangerous in large doses. Make wise choices.
I will be using a traditional toddy rod, or as it is also called a loggerhead, to warm the hot toddy. A stove works too, but a toddy rod imparts a slightly toastier final flavor. If you are curious to learn more, check out this fantastic article that goes into early American toddy culture.