In my digging to understand what makes a hot toddy a hot toddy to people, the most common response I got was that it must “be hot.” (That’s it? Really?)
So, already back to square one, I went in search of the definition of “toddy.” Some think the drink was invented by 17th-century Scottish doctors, who only recommended the addition of honey, lemon, and spices to help the medicinal, numbing Scotch go down a bit easier. Others trace the drink’s origins through its name—toddy being an Anglicization of the Hindi taddy, which translates to “drink made of fermented palm sap.” Armed by these two definitions (as well as many, many other dubious-sounding ones), I synthesized the hot toddy as: a hot beverage largely featuring the brackish, asphalt-punch of Scotch, with just enough lemon, honey, and hot water to make it feel cozy.
In order to drive that fuzzy feeling home, many versions of the drink will also include black tea and spices—but they don’t have to. In my various tests, I found it was hard to enjoy both the tea and the whiskey; both have such strong flavor profiles that they would compete when blended. But, for a non-alcoholic hot toddy that’s still interesting, you can simply replace the whisky with some strong-brewed Lapsang Souchong. Bold and smoky, this tea will provide the necessary body and tannic backbone that separates a hot toddy from a hot-lemon-water.
And returning to the original query: Please do pre-warm your mug in some way (fill it up with boiling water, let sit for a few minutes, then pour the water out), or drink from an insulated travel mug if you can. Cold toddies have their time and place, but this is not it.
Lastly, a note about garnish: A clove-studded lemon wheel or wedge is cute and certainly a possibility, but I’ve always been of the camp that believes if you can’t—or don’t want to—eat your drink garnish, then what’s the point? Save yourself the effort, and save that lemon for a future toddy.
Controversial, I know. Are you team Scotch or whiskey? Lemon wheel or none? Let us know in the comments. —Coral Lee
Test Kitchen Notes
This is one of Food52’s Best Recipes. In this series, our test kitchen sets out to create the ultimate version of your favorite recipes. Let us know on the Hotline if there's one you'd love to see next. —The Editors
Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga.
When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.