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Mixing Your Best Hot Toddy

Perhaps the most iconic cold-weather cocktail, the hot toddy has been in circulation for centuries, inspiring countless variations, some with simple twists and others with more bells and whistles. When mixing at a toddy home, there are a few easy ways to make sure you’re getting the best results from the traditional mix of spirit, sugar, (sometimes bitters), and hot water. We asked a few bartenders for their pro tips when it comes to making the perfect toddy, and if you need a little more recipe inspiration, check out this roundup.

The Base Whiskey is a traditional move for a toddy, but the drink’s simple framework offers plenty of opportunity for other base spirits to come into play. At Bar Shiru in Oakland, co-owner and creative director Daniel Gahr says barrel-aged spirits like whiskey, brandy, and rum work well “because they have a little more character than clear spirits and can stand up to the dilution levels of a toddy.” The bar’s lead bartender Taylor Sweeney adds that amari can also be fun to play with, thanks to the minty, citrusy, and medicinal qualities of some iconic Italian liqueurs, which open up when warmed. “We like to approach the toddy how we approach most cocktails: Start with a classic recipe and then experiment from there based on your taste and what ingredients you have on hand,” she says.

“I’m a HUGE fan of rum and brandy toddies because they all heat up in a way that highlights their best qualities and dims their worst,” adds Toby Maloney of The Violet Hour in Chicago. But his favorite choice for a toddy? Gin. “If that sounds outlandish,” he says, “start with barrel-aged gins like Kyrö Koskue from Finland or St. George’s Dry Rye Reposado—the vanilla and baking spice notes from the oak will remind you gently of other more traditional aged spirits like whiskey or rum, while the underlying botanicals of the gin bob merrily around in the background for a fun secondary melody you wouldn’t normally find in a hot cocktail.”

The Proof The next-level move for picking the right base spirit, Maloney says, is to consider its proof. “Stick to the lower-ABV end of the spectrum because otherwise your drinks will smell too boozy, which can be off-putting,” he advises. “Think about using amari, vermouth, or sherry in hot drinks, because these offer a big bang of flavor for their low proof.” At Bar Shiru, Sweeney favors an alternative approach in the Sweeney Toddy: “Something that’s higher proof tends to shine through, and in a toddy, I want to taste the spirit! If you want something that’s a little less spirit-forward, simply reduce the amount of the spirit, as opposed to upping the amount of water.”

The Water (or Tea) When it comes to your water to spirit ratio, Sweeney suggests starting with 2 oz. of spirit to 4 oz. of water, then adjusting to taste. “[This ratio] allows for the spirit to come through but also leaves enough ‘space’ for your citrus and sugar ingredients,” she says. “200 degrees F is where we like to start,” says Gahr of Bar Shiru’s preferred liquid temperature. “The toddy is meant to be hot and cozy. It’s always a little sad if you make (or order) a toddy and by the time you take your first sip it’s already cooled to room temp. Just like any hot drink, there’s a temperature sweet spot.”

Julia Momosé of Kumiko in Chicago says hot drinks are also very popular in Japan, where tea is often used to lengthen spirits. In her new book The Way of the Cocktail, Momosé offers a Chawari Toddy recipe and shares two preferred ratios for oyuwari, or shochu and hot tea or water: 5:5 equal parts for slow sipping and highlighting the aromatics of the spirit, or 6:4, the more popular ratio that puts more of an emphasis on the spirit. Regardless of the measure, she always brings the accompanying liquid to a boil, then lets it settle for a few minutes to make sure the drink won’t scald the drinker. “If you’re making water to add to tea, use an electric kettle with a temperature gauge or thermometer to bring the water to 170 degrees Fahrenheit for sencha, 150 degrees for matcha, or 195 degrees for black tea. These temperatures will ensure the leaves open up at the correct rate,” she says.

The Sweetener When sweetening a toddy, Momosé considers the mouthfeel of the liquid so the drinking experience is more enjoyable. “A toddy is much like an Old Fashioned in character and build. However, once the temperature reaches a certain degree, the way we perceive sugar changes, so I often reformulate the typical ratio of spirit to sugar to water to get the right texture and mouthfeel while accounting for the change in temperature.” Think about your base spirit and what sweet flavors might align best; perhaps that’s maple syrup for a whiskey toddy, or molasses for one made with rum. At Sportsman’s Club in Chicago, orange liqueur and cinnamon syrup sweeten the bar’s whiskey hot toddy, and honey works beautifully with brandy, for example.

The Mixing Method “With simple toddy-like cocktails combining a spirit (like shochu) and water, pour hot water into the glass first and then add the spirit—this will help the aromatics and flavors of the spirit unfold in a more pleasing way,” Momosé adds. For Maloney, every vessel you use to make and serve the drink must be tempered first to maintain the right temperature. “And I mean HOT, not warm, to the touch,” he says. “Otherwise, it’ll weigh the temperature of the entire drink down.” Maloney does this in several steps. First, warm up your mug by filling it with hot water. Then gently ease the bottom of a (clean and empty) shaker tin into the mug. “A little water may overflow, which is why you had the foresight to place the mug on a plate or tray to catch the spillage,” he adds. The shaker tin will warm up quickly. “Express a citrus peel into the tin for aroma, then add bitters, syrup, and booze, and give that a good stir. Carefully take the tin out of the mug and pour the priming water out of the mug. Then pour the cocktail from the shaker into the mug and top it with hot water (near boiling!).”

The Garnish Most bartenders will tell you that with a hot toddy, the garnish a critical component of the drink. Maloney almost always opts for citrus peels, and does two rounds of peel oil expression. “I do one express and discard it in the tin as the liquid ingredients are tempering, and then another once the cocktail has been poured into its mug, which is usually an express and discard,” he says, though for his Ginger Toddy he opts to leave the garnish in because the clove-studded peel lends extra aromatics to the drink. “Because hot drinks typically don’t involve a citrus juice component, this bit of acidity in the aroma is as integral as the aromatic garnish in the Old Fashioned. It’s the one moment you have to bring brightness and complexity to the drink before it’s consumed.”

In his version of the classic whiskey toddy, bartender and author Jim Meehan echoes Maloney’s sentiments that the garnish is key to the drink. “… If you combine hot water with alcohol, heady fumes will evaporate from the glass, repelling all but the most intrepid imbibers. The lemon floats to the surface, blocking the steam from billowing up, and the heat from the water enhances the cloves’ aromatics.”

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