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How to Make a Hot Toddy Without a Recipe

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Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: It's time to warm up your liquor. Associate Editor Marian Bull is walking us through the art of the toddy.

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Hot Toddy

Here is the beauty of a hot toddy: All you really need to make one is a bottle of liquor, the ability to boil water, a bit of sweetness, and the need for warmth. Past that, everything is just pleasant decoration.

The toddy hasn't always been defined by its hotness -- according to our friends over at PUNCH, it began simply as a base spirit bolstered by a bit of sweetener, served both hot and cold. But now we know it as the thing that warms us throughout the winter, a boozy little blanket that comes in handy on ski weekends, or dark nights at home, or afternoons when a cup of tea feels a bit dull. 

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Unlike carefully balanced Negronis and perfectly shaken martinis, a hot toddy scoffs at measurements, asking for just a pour of booze and a cupful of hot water and a spoonful of sugar. Make it as strong or as sweet as you like; add enough lemon to make it bracing or just a squeeze to lighten things up. Start with bourbon, then branch out to other spirits once your bottle runs dry. 

Everyone should have their own go-to toddy. Here's how to create your own:

1. Choose your base spirit. I'm pretty loyal to bourbon here, but any brown liquor will work -- whiskey, aged rum, cognac if you want to feel like you're on Masterpiece Theater wearing a velvet blazer, Scotch if you want something smoky. I've even seen a tequila toddy (and I assume that mezcal would be even better). An ounce is a good place to start, but you know better than I do just how much you need.

Hot Toddy

 

2. Top it off with boiling water. Pour straight from the kettle, or infuse your water with fresh ginger (my favorite) or a spent vanilla bean pod in a small pot. I generally make my toddies in a small mug and just fill them mostly to the top, but 4 or 5 ounces is a good place to start if numbers make you feel calm and safe.

Hot Toddy

 

3. Add your sweetener of choice, plus whatever extras you fancy. You can't go wrong with lemon and honey -- they pair particularly well with bourbon, creating a sweet and bright and burly thing that will take off even the most serious chill. But maple and agave and straight-up sugar will work, too. Try infused syrups, be they homemade or store-bought. A friend of mine drops in a shot of mead, when he just happens to have it on hand. If you think something will taste good in a toddy, you're probably right, and if you're wrong, you might be too drunk for another one anyways.

There's also a widespread tradition of adding tea to your toddy, of which I'm a big fan, although I'm not sure where this started. The hit of caffeine from black tea is a nice counterbalance to a shot of liquor -- like the grownup, legitimately classy version of a Red Bull and vodka -- but something soft and herbal, like ginger or even chamomile, will do if it's too close to bedtime.

Hot Toddy

 

4. Garnish, or don't. Consider some spice: A cinnamon stick and a clove or two make for a very fitting garnish, and hint at mulled cider. Crystallized ginger is a very good excuse to eat candy. A lemon twist is rarely a bad idea. Boozy cherries are a welcome accompaniment; so is dried fruit (as in this recipe from Amanda). 

Hot Toddy

Now give your toddy a stir. Drink it up. Don't burn your mouth. Repeat until you're sufficiently warmed and buzzed and comforted and the winter feels less like a death sentence and more like an opportunity to look great in sweaters.

We're looking for contributors! Email [email protected] and tell us the dish you could make in your sleep, without a recipe. Check out what we've already covered.

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: winter, cocktails, toddy, booze, bourbon, whiskey, rum, tea, drinks