There’s a good reason humans have been warming up their liquor for centuries of winters. Our favorite barman tells all.
There is a time and a place for everything, even cocktails. Just as a big meaty California cabernet is not the beverage of choice while lounging on the beach in August, a vodka tonic is not what a person needs when fighting off the chill of one of our Carolina winters. You want something warming, and warm. You want a hot toddy.
We humans have been taking our alcohol hot ever since we have been taking our alcohol. From grogs to gloggs, to mulled spirits and even the wonderfully eggy Tom and Jerry (a winter warmer around a lot longer than the cartoon cat and mouse), family lore and classic cocktail guides have handed down a plethora of belly-warming options. Yet, it’s rare you’ll find one offered on a bar menu… aside from the ubiquitous “Irish” and “Mexican” Coffees and the occasional Flaming Dr. Pepper. (Wait, what?) And while I can imagine part of this comes from the fact hot toddies are labor intensive (Have you ever noticed how many bar blenders are broken on busy nights? Or most any nights?), we southerners are just not that used to drinking our alcohol hot. And that is a shame.
I come from a family that flirts with the hot cocktail… but only around the winter holidays, and always with mixed results.
Early on there was “Russian Tea”—a peculiar blend of powdered Nestea and Tang, spiced with cinnamon and clove…two spoonfuls stirred into hot water and reinforced with a shot of vodka. For this one I was too young for the vodka, but I did enjoy sticking my finger in the powder and licking it off. We have made mulled wine (think sangria for the wool-wearing crowd), which was good, but a little went a long way and the rest sat in an oversized mason jar in the back corner of the fridge until it started to become its own little biosphere. One Christmas Dad tried a flaming coffee recipe, but the searing mouth burn I received from the lip of the glass has forever forced its details from my head.
The year-to-year winner is wassail. Every year Mom pulls out the avocado green percolator (that probably showed up in the George family around the same time I did) and brews up our family’s holiday spirit of choice. And that percolator stands attentively on the kitchen counter, orange light glowing from Christmas Eve morning straight on through to the 26th, flocked by an entourage of bottles waiting for you to “personalize” your mug of wassail— spiced rum for my brother, peppermint schnapps for me and Mom and just a splash of brandy for my grandmother, butdonttellanybody.
I have played around with the hot toddy for years and offer you some of my favorites here. They are tasty and not that much trouble to make— the ones that require the most labor can be prepped in advance and held in the fridge until you are ready for them. These beverages are designed to be shared, so make them for your family and friends over the holidays…but don’t wait for the holidays. They hit the spot any time you want to warm your bones and your soul.