Hot Toddy for the cold season

As the temperatures dropped and we started seeing morning frost on the grass at the bus stop, I knew it was almost time to talk toddies.  Whiskey on its own can feel very warming, but sometimes I crave an adult beverage that is actually, literally warm.

Fingers wrapped around a mug, the heat radiating into my hands, inhaling the steam, my feet tucked under a blanket… those are some of my favorite things about an otherwise cold, gray season.

When winter flus and blues get me down, I just love a good toddy.

Two weeks ago, I was hit by the Mack truck that is pneumonia, so suddenly it was all toddies all the time.  I decided to make the best of it, and experiment with recipes.  Scotch vs. bourbon?  What kind of honey?  Cinnamon?  Cloves?  Tea vs. hot water?  I feel pretty confident that I have arrived upon the perfect hot toddy for whiskey lovers.

close_upLet’s start with the basic.  My standard hot toddy is as follows:

  • 2 shots of whiskey
  • juice from a quarter of a lemon
  • 1 generous tsp of honey
  • ½ cup or so of hot water

Stir until honey dissolves.  Garnish with a twist of lemon peel if you’re feeling fancy.  Wrap cold fingers around and drink.  Be happy. Be warm. Be well.

I’ve always been pretty satisfied with that recipe, but I figured since I was going to be drinking toddies medicinally for days, I might as well see whether it could be refined or improved upon.

Oh, a note on medicinal use of the hot toddy.  If you’re sick, it’s probably not actually a good idea to drink alcohol.  All of the pneumonia pages on the internet say not to drink alcohol because it’s dehydrating.  Here’s what I say about that:

That’s why we mix it with hot water!

It’s like the hot water totally cancels out the dehydrating quality of the booze, right?  And whiskey is typically what… 45% alcohol?  So the other 55% is what?  That’s right, water!  Also, honey has been shown in an actual honest-to-goodness peer-reviewed scientific study to be more effective than cough medicine at reducing coughs.

So suck it, Dr. Buzzkill.  Give me back my toddy.

Moving on.

Let’s start with the whiskey.  What should you use?  Scotch or bourbon?  Well, that depends.

As my Scotch for the purposes of this experiment, I used Speyburn 10, a quite good single malt at a low enough price point to meet my standards for mixing.  I’m not mixing my $40+ bottles of Scotch with honey and water.  No, no I am not.  But the $20-ish price point aside, the Speyburn is particularly well-suited to toddy-making because it’s on the more subtle side of single malt, while still retaining a distinct Scotch quality.  Tasted neat, it strongly evokes citrus, as well as lighter notes of ginger, cinnamon, and aromatic florals, with a lingering finish of oak and smoke.

Facing off against the Speyburn was my old standby, Bulleit bourbon.  As budget bourbons go, Bulleit is hard to beat.  It’s got a nice vanilla caramel sweetness, some grassy rye and citrus on the palette, and plenty of lingering cinnamon spice and heat.  I’ll drink it straight, but it’s inexpensive enough to mix.

So who wins?  Honestly?  They both do.  Some days I liked the bourbon better, and some days the Scotch.  Both make delightful toddies.

Speyburn 10YOThe Speyburn retains more of its character against the other flavors.  The citrus gets lost in the lemon juice, but the smoke and peat finish stand up and remind you that you’re drinking a single malt.  Some of the florals also come through and add considerable complexity.

The Bulleit blends more with the flavors of the honey and lemon.  It makes a sweeter drink with a more caramel flavor, and the hot cinnamon spiciness is a great balance against the sweet and sour of honey and lemon.

So basically, if you’re a Scotch drinker and want to really taste the whiskey in the finished toddy, you can’t go wrong with the Speyburn.  If you want a sweeter, more integrated flavor with some spiciness, use the Bulleit.

Next up.  Spices.  Many of the hot toddy recipes on the web recommend boiling your water with a cinnamon stick and some cloves or nutmeg.  I tried that.  The result was delicious both with bourbon and Scotch, liked mulled cider.  But sadly, the spices almost completely overpowered the taste of the whiskey.  Which, if you don’t like whiskey, might be a good thing.

It’s obvious at this point, though, that I do like whiskey.  Like, kind of a lot.  So drowning the whiskey flavor in mulling spices is not the way to go for my palette.

I did also try using a cinnamon stick as a stirrer, which lent some cinnamon flavor without overpowering the way it did when the cinnamon was boiled into the water.  It also looked pretty and schmancy.  I liked that more in the Scotch toddy, although it didn’t particularly need it.  I definitely preferred the bourbon toddy with no spices at all.

Bulleit Bourbon Bottle_Hi-ResNow that we have our basic recipe, what kind of honey should you use?

If you’re thinking, “What kind of honey? Um, honey is honey,” you’re wrong.  Much in the way that my friend’s Scotch tasting opened me up to the possibilities of what a whisky could taste like, I once tasted an array of honeys at a holiday shopping event.  A local vendor armed with hundreds of teeny tiny plastic spoons and a warm smile changed the way I think about honey.

I still buy all of my honey from her at

One of my favorite honeys is one called Wild foam, a wildflower-based honey whose light flavors evoke vanilla and toasted marshmallow.  It is a relative of Meadowfoam honey.  Another house favorite is a honey made by killer bees that is quite strong in flavor with caramel-like sweetness.

For this toddy experiment, I added two more honeys to my pantry: an orange blossom honey, since that is readily available everywhere, and buckwheat honey, the thick dark honey used in the research study to reduce coughing.

Results are in.  First of all, the honey matters.  Don’t just pull some yucky old grocery store honey out of the back of your pantry and throw it in there.  I mean, you can.  It will be fine.  But for the perfect toddy, get yourself some nice local honey and support a small business.  Everybody wins.

Honey matters.
Honey matters.

In the bourbon toddies, I preferred the gentle sweetness of the Wild Foam.  The vanilla and marshmallow blended perfectly with the caramel and cinnamon flavors of the Bulleit.  The Wild Foam honey was overwhelmed by the floral and peat flavors in the Scotch version.

In the Scotch toddies, I liked the killer bee honey, which (for lack of better language) just tastes very strongly like honey.  It had the strength to stand up to the bigger flavors of the Scotch.  The killer bee honey was also nice in the bourbon toddy.

The orange blossom honey disappeared into both toddies, its flavors presumably swallowed up by the citrus already present in the lemon juice.  It lent sweetness, but little else.  The buckwheat honey was overpowering in the bourbon toddy, but went fairly well with the Scotch.  It gives a molasses and dried fruit quality that feels sort of festive and seasonal, almost like fruitcake.  (But in a good way.)

One last experiment involved making the toddies with tea instead of plain hot water.  I used a decent quality “breakfast style” black tea.  It tasted good, but became much more about tea and much less about whiskey.  My advice is to drink tea with honey and lemon in the daytime, and switch over to a tea-less toddy for evening.

A spoonful of honey does wonders.

In general, I found that most of the things I added to the recipe took away from the flavor of whiskey, which is really my favorite part.  Finding the right complements to those flavors in the honey can make a big difference, but adding things like tea or cinnamon and spices didn’t do it for me.

If you’re making toddies as a mixed drink for people who aren’t necessarily whiskey enthusiasts, sure, go ahead and boil your water with a cinnamon stick and some cloves.  Use the gentler-flavored bourbon in that case.  They won’t even taste the whiskey at all, and it will be a delicious mulled-style hot boozy drink.

But for those of you, like me, who are here for the whiskey, leave all of that stuff out so you can taste the magic.

One final thought on the hot toddy:  Be careful!  It’s easy to sip and sip and forget that you just drank two shots of whiskey.  If I were drinking a double bourbon neat, it would take a while to drink.  By the time I sniffed it, rolled it on my tongue, and felt that warm burn slide down into my body, I would know I had been drinking and would pace myself accordingly.

With toddies, I found that I could drink two mugs in a relatively short time and then suddenly realize… Crap!  I have had four shots of whiskey!  They are just so lovely and comforting, and I guess I’m not used to drinking mixed drinks that slide down so easy.  So watch out for that.

“‘Cause that’s not tea in your mug there, baby.