All About The Hot Toddy

In all my years of tending bar, rarely have I seen any other cocktail prepared as inconsistently (and wrongly) as ye olde Hot Toddy. Why? It’s mostly a result of the “telephone game” or Pass It Down theory of learning to bartend. It’s a situation where Barbacks working Service Bar, teach Runners “how to bartend” – the stupid passing down (uh…) knowledge to the ignorant. This cocktail requires a couple of minutes of preparation and often, a bit of running around. Usually, that means leaving the bar for a trip both to the espresso machine and perhaps to the bowels of the kitchen to retrieve necessary components. What bartender in their right mind would look forward to unnecessary complicated cocktail prep in lieu of serving 3 or 4 other gratuity-rich guests? Answer: the usual suspects – the short-sighted contingent.

Let’s start with the general conception most bartenders and customers have of The Hot Toddy. You wouldn’t be ridiculed for assuming it’s little more than some grog (usually, some form of Whiskey) and hot water. The reason that general, and unbelievably bland, mental photograph exists is – as I’ve mentioned – ignorance and laziness. The overwhelming lot of barkeeps and patrons simply don’t know any better. They’ve haven’t been adequately taught. They’ve never experienced a properly prepared Hot Toddy, in the right setting, at the correct time, temperature, in the correct glass and with the appropriate condiments.

Dispelling Hot Toddy Myths:

  • A Hot Toddy is not simply Whiskey and hot water
  • A Hot Toddy is not a cold or flu remedy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Alcohol – in quantity, will dehydrate your body, actually causing you to feel worse. The short-term effect (the high and delight) is derived primarily from the cocktail’s temperature and the alcohol’s heat slipping down your throat – particularly if it’s bite-ass cold outside. The booze doesn’t do a damned thing to make you feel better. Alcohol should be avoided when you’re ill.

Hot Toddy Don’ts:

  • Outside of batch preparations and specialized house cocktails, never are you to pour honey into someone’s drink. You have no clue how sweet they prefer their cocktail, if at all. They may even be allergic, diabetic (go figure) or prefer artificial, junk sweeteners.
  • Never pour super-heated water (e.g., from an espresso or coffee machine) directly and quickly into a relatively thin-walled glass – especially within close range of guests. Rapid temperature changes, heating in particular, can and will cause certain glasses to shatter or explode.
  • Never serve a Hot Toddy without the appropriate garnish. Otherwise, it’s not a Hot Toddy.
  • Never, ever stick a sip straw or anything plastic in a Hot Toddy or any other hot drink. Don’t serve a sip straw on the side either. It’s downright nasty/ghetto-looking and the hot water releases the plastic’s carcinogens. The only drinks that get straws are those which have ice – not Martinis, not hot drinks, nor neat Whiskey or Cognac. Use an honest to goodness metal spoon.

Proper Hot Toddy Preparation:

Like all hot cocktails, Hot Toddys should be served in a stem glass – ideally. If you’re short on stem glasses, a glass or mug with a handle will do. They’re typically not as visually striking however. The reason should be obvious: you don’t want your guests burning their fingers by being forced to grasp the “meat” of a glass. Given the choice, I prefer to server the cocktail in a 10oz or 12oz Brandy Snifter – no those dinky 5oz Libbey snifters you’ll find in many pubs. The goblet makes for a very handsome impression. Presentation is king.

As mentioned, most of the public is ignorant. As a good barkeep, you should ask or suggest which liquor your guest would like with their Hot Toddy. Asking this question usually results in a look of utter confusion – the deer-in-headlights affect. It’s because most bartenders won’t bother to ask and will instinctively reach for ever-present bottle of Jameson, or even Jack Daniels. You’re doing your guests a disservice by not asking and offering options. If they’re waffling or indecisive lead them towards a quality Cognac, blended Scotch, or dark Caribbean Rum. Yes, a Hot Toddy can be made with any hooch. I prefer mine with Goslings Black Seal Rum or Michters 10 Year Old Rye.

Your preparation should start with pouring a shot (usually, 1.5 – 2.0 ounces) into the snifter. Next, drop a metal teaspoon inside. The reason is that the teaspoon will help to dissipate the heat of the ensuing hot water, helping ensure that your glass doesn’t detonate like Thermite – highly embarrassing. Long, long ago, a long-haired, scraggly, Marlboro Red-smoking barkeep named Bobby passed this neat trick down to me at some obscure bartending school (gulp) over by The Port Authority Bus Terminal. You could still smoke in bars and in some offices at the time. He kind of resembled Keith Richards albeit with long, dark hair.

About 4oz of boiling water should follow. Pour it slowly, allowing the glass and spoon come up to temperature at a non-alarming pace. Don’t overfill the glass! Just because the glass has a 12oz  - or whatever – capacity, doesn’t mean it should be filled. Dumping that much water in will screw up the cocktail’s balance.

Next comes the most important part – flavor infusion. A Hot Toddy is not a Hot Toddy without a Clove-lined, whole Lemon Wheel sitting on the rim. In addition, if my bar/restaurant has it, I will drop an Anisette star and/or Cinnamon Stick directly into the mixture. It should look like what you see in my photograph above.

You must then serve your guest the cocktail with two very important items: (1) a saucer (2) honey on the sideDo not make assumptions and pour goop yourself. I’ve seen way too many bartenders inappropriately doctor up a guest’s hot drink. All hot drinks should have a saucer, or a Bev-Nap at the very least. Personally, I prefer a small, ornamental doily on a small saucer. Remember, presentation is a huge part of our craft. I tend to go all out and provide a sugar caddy in addition to the honey. Engage your customer and instruct them that they should give the lemon a light squeeze then plop the wheel/clove combination into the concoction. In many “throwback” bars, you’ll often find variations that add a dash or two of Boker’s or Orange Bitters or perhaps, a sprig of fresh Rosemary or even muddled and candied ginger. Nothing wrong with that. Experiment and see how you like it.

The whole she-bang should sit for a minute or two before imbibing. What you’ll be left with is a steaming hot, deliciously fragrant, spicy Winter adult tea – a magnificent napalm for the senses.

So, fellow barkeeps, don’t be short-sighted by churning out crap hot water and Whiskey that barely passes muster. Don’t turn off the people who pay your rent with Oh God 360′s for the mere “horror” of ordering a hot cocktail. Put a little effort into your Hot Toddy service and your return will be tenfold in the long run. You’ll turn visitors into regulars, and those regulars will casually boast about the best Hot Toddy they’ve ever had.

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