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To Your Health! Cheers to the Hot Toddy

Food is medicine, or so they say. What about drink? Could a hot toddy cure what ails you? No doctor in good standing prescribes alcohol anymore, but a warm drink before bed just might make you feel more comfortable. While it may not fix the flu, a hot toddy might ease the winter blues. And it sure beats glug of Robitussin.


What exactly is a “hot toddy”? It can take many forms, but it’s a combination of liquor (take your pick: brandy, Scotch, Irish whiskey), water, a sweetener such as honey or sugar, as well as herbs and/or spices. It’s served hot and is especially welcome during the winter months or cold, damp weather as a comfort measure. A classic hot toddy consists of whiskey, hot water, honey and a squeeze of lemon, but you’ll find an almost infinite amount of variations based on locale: Bourbon is popular in the South, maple syrup is often used in the Northeast, the Irish prefer Irish whiskey, and so on.


No one can say for sure where the hot toddy originated, but there are a few compelling stories. One involves a doctor who did indeed prescribe the warm, spiced drink as a part of medical treatment. Dr. Robert Bentley Todd, an Irish physician, was a well-respected doctor who wrote, lectured, advocated for trained nurses in hospitals and also encouraged hot toddies for patients suffering from fever. His version, from the 19th Century, fortified the sick with hot brandy, white cinnamon, sugar syrup and water.


Scotland, also, stakes a claim as the birthplace of the hot toddy. It was common enough in 18th Century Edinburgh for pubs to serve Scotch with a splash of hot water to ward off the chill. Water and whisky were often linked, the Scottish Gaelic phrase uisge beathatranslates as “water of life” (aqua vitae) and referred to whisky. In 1721, a poem called “The Morning Interview” by Allan Ramsay referred to water from Tod’s Well, a nearby spring and water source for Edinburgh. Could that “Todian Spring,” that Ramsay poetically wrote of be the source of the hot toddy? In 1796, a more famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns, also mentions the toddy in his work “Holy Fair”: “The lads and lasses, blithely bent/ To mix baith soul and body/ Sit round the table, well content/ And steer about the toddy.”


But there is still another possible origin, this one, in India. As the British colonized India, they became acquainted with a local drink made from fermented palm sap called a “taddy” or “toddy” from the Hindi wortari, fromtar, meaning palm tree. It’s plausible that the British adapted thetarito the toddy, adding in herbs, spices and sugar to create a new drink.


Now, about those medical benefits. The honey in a hot toddy could alleviate a sore throat. A little boost of vitamin C from a squeeze of lemon or other citrus might help a cold, too. A warm drink of any kind could certainly ease throat pain and congestion. The alcohol may be soporific, but beware: It can also interfere with quality sleep later in the night. And of course, one would never mix alcohol and prescription medication.


 But I do think about William Faulkner, the well-known Southern writer who swore by hot toddies. His niece Dean Faulkner Wells recounted his simple recipe in The Great American Writers’ Cookbook, and explained that “Pappy always made a small ceremony out of serving his Hot Toddy, bringing it upstairs on a silver tray and admonishing his patient to drink it quickly, before it cooled off. It never failed.” Whether it was the toddy or the love and care it was prepared with, hard to say what was most soothing. Maybe having a Pappy to make you a warm drink is as important as the toddy itself.

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