I originally wrote this post for my own website, The Fifth Drink, because I knew that I needed a featured article on the hot toddy to go with this rare bout of unusually cold weather we’re having in Florida. And for those of you doubters up north, know that it just snowed as far south as Tampa Bay and snow flurries were sighted here in Miami. Snow counts as cold, period.
After I finished writing the whole thing, I realized that I had gone into an extended discourse on local Florida honey. I’ve spent years tracking down the best honey in Florida, because honey is worth the effort. It was mankind’s first taste of sweetness, it lasts forever and it reflects regional variety. Just like wine, no one honey is like any other.
This works for Miami Dish, because Miami Dish loves all things local, and wisely so. If you eat local, you’re supporting your community while munching down on food that shows the character of the place that you live in. That’s a win-win, so before I get overlong in my preamble, here’s my article on the hot toddy and our local Florida honey:
Of all the hot drinks in the world, there are two that I feel deserve extra attention, the Hot Toddy and the Tom & Jerry. The hot toddy gets first dibs, because in my humble opinion, it is the greatest hot cocktail of all time.
What makes the hot toddy so great? Because as a wintery day draws to a close and work is finished, the dishes are done, laundry is folded and the clothes are ironed, there’s no better way to set yourself adrift to Slumberland than with a soul warming hot toddy. It’s such a good nightcap, I’ll even make one when the weather is warm just to have it, but now that the weather is finally cold in 49 out of 50 states, it’s high season for the hot toddy. Hawaiians-you may just have to stick your head in a freezer for a few minutes before partaking to simulate this effect.
But what is a “toddy” exactly? Seeing that I can’t resist a little philology, the word most likely comes to the English language by way of India. In the Hindi language, “tari” means “palm tree”, and Indians use the sap from certain palm trees to make a type of alcoholic beverage called “toddy”. The English, with their close connection to India, borrowed the term to describe one of their earliest cocktails-a hot whisky drink flavored with citrus juice, spices and a sweetener– usually honey, sugar or both.
There is a competing theory that the word “toddy” comes from the term “Tod’s Well,” called the “Todian Spring” in an eighteenth century poem by Allan Ramsay. This well supplied the city of Edinburgh with water and was apparently a noteworthy feature of Scotland. Now try to follow this-the word for whisky comes from the Gaelic “usice beatha”, meaning “water of life,” so if whisky is closely related to water and water comes from wells such as the Todian Spring, then the name “toddy” must be derived from this close association.
I admit being biased as a former student of Sanskrit, but this seems like a lot of far-fetched bullshit to me. It’s also next to impossible to explain the Todian Spring etymology in a few concise sentences, so I’m bitter about having to include it.
The Indians, with all of their spices and sweets, were some of the earliest mixologists, and they continue to have street shops selling a multitude of spiced drinks to this day. I imagine that the parched and lascivious British sailors must have had their knots rocked by all of the richly flavored Indian toddies and punches after surviving for a couple months on beef jerky and rainwater. The stuff about the Tod’s Well reads like a strained attempt to extract an Anglo-Saxon origin from one of Britain’s greatest cocktails, but I digress.
Here is what’s really important, how to make a great hot toddy:
2 oz whisky
½ oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ oz simple syrup
1 bar spoon honey
1 cinnamon stick
Put bar spoon with honey in the base of an Irish Coffee glass, add other ingredients, top with boiling water and stir.
Like most things cocktailian, my formula is borrowed from Simon Difford’s Guide to Cocktails , but I do have a few of my own flourishes. First, two ounces of whisky makes for a super stiff drink, especially in this format. The Irish Coffee glass is small, generally holding around 8 oz, so you’re not adding that much water. Also, the use of hot water makes the alcohol seem, well, hotter than it already is. That’s why hot saké, for example, tastes more punchy than cold saké. There’s some science behind this-when liquor gets hot, the alcohol starts to evaporate and the fumes go right up to your face. With that in mind, many people may be more comfortable with 1 or 1 ½ oz whisky.
What I like to do is make extra hot water and top off my glass intermittently. This serves two purposes-it keeps my drink warm and tones it down a little. Not only is this drink potent, it’s also quite sweet at first, so I find that the extra dilution doesn’t hurt it as much as a cold cocktail. Plus, the additional warm water extracts more oils from the dried cinnamon and cloves, so there’s plenty of flavor all the way to the end.
For the whisky, you can use whatever you like. Here are the general guidelines: American whiskey, like bourbon, is sweet and often spicy; Scottish whisky, a.k.a. Scotch, is smoky; Irish whiskey is sweet and soft; Canadian whisky is the sweetest and softest of the whole lot. I use my big bottle of Famous Grouse Scotch, because it’s a good, inexpensive blended whisky made with healthy doses of Highland Park and Macallan.
Living in Miami, I really should be using Johnnie Walker Black, because that’s the unofficial drink of the Magic City. Now I know some people think, “You should never use a top shelf Scotch for mixing,” but that sentiment seems be slowly on the wane. Think about it like this-if you were preparing food, would you say, “Well, if I’m going to eat the food raw, I only use the best, but if I’m going to cook, I just use the cheapest stuff I can find.”? No-that sounds stupid because it is stupid. The same principle applies to mixing drinks.
Use ingredients that you like, so if you drink Johnnie Walker Black, try it in your hot toddy. You can even experiment with Single Malt Scotch if you’re feeling brave. I like to mix equal parts Laphroaig (Cask Strength even!) and Famous Grouse for my hot toddy. That way I can have the smoky, peaty, medicinal qualities of Laphroaig without going overboard.
But if I have anything truly substantial to contribute to Difford’s formula, it has to be the use of honey, because I’ve worked hard over the years to develop an appreciation for the different kinds of honey. I usually look for a monofloral honey, and if possible, something local.
Monofloral honey is derived from one type of plant, sometimes a single species of plant, and it gives the honey a very specific color and taste profile. Florida has an abundance of flowering plants, so we have great honey to boot, one of the most common being palm honey. While palms tree are a diverse family of plants, they generally produce a honey that is medium dark with light savory notes. This is what I use most often in my cocktails, particularly the Cook’s Palm Honey from Lake Wales, because it tastes great and I can find it in Publix.
The other big dog in Florida is orange blossom honey. This honey comes from the 65 million orange trees in the state of Florida (I looked it up–there are at least that many), as well as other citrus trees including grapefruits, lemons and limes. They produce a honey that is light in color and has hint of oranges. This is unusual, because most honey does not taste like the fruit from the same plant. If you eat the flower from a blueberry plant, it will not taste like a blueberry, just as the leaves, stems and roots will not taste like blueberries. Honey follows the same logic, because it comes from the flower of the plant, not the fruit. Orange blossom honey is one of the few exceptions, and you can find it in almost any grocery store.
Now for the rare stuff. The Gruwell Apiary in Fort Pierce produces a mangrove honey that is only available in their 12 oz squeeze bear, and they don’t advertise it. However, you can find it on their website under the 12 oz squeeze bear section if you drop down the “Choose” button when you’re about to add something to your cart. You can find the page here.
The mangrove honey costs an extra $1, but it’s worth it. Mangrove forests grow on the coastal regions of central and southern Florida, and we can proudly say that we are the mangrove state. Texas and Louisiana have small patches, and Hawaii has invasive mangrove species, but Florida is the king when it comes to these iconic coastal forests. Our mangroves are comprised of three different species, conveniently named the Red, Black and White Mangroves (Rhizophora mangle, Avicennia germinans and Laguncularia racemosa). The mangrove honey from Gruwell is light in color, delicate and has a hint of caramel, not unlike the great sourwood honey from the Carolinas. It has the classic honey taste, and that’s why I like it.
And then there’s the king-Tupelo Honey. The Florida panhandle, particularly the area around the Apalachicola River, is the only place in the world where tupelo honey is produced commercially. Tupelo is renowned for several reasons, the famous being that it does not crystallize.
Honey crystallizes when some of the glucose content spontaneously forms crystals, and this happens over time to most honey. Some go quick, like mesquite honey, but real tupelo honey never will, because it has a high ratio of fructose to glucose.
Tupelo honey has a light green tint; it’s viscous in texture and has a taste that is floral, fruity, exotic and distinctly awesome. I was given a squeeze bear of Clyde Owen Tupelo Honey as a gift, and it is a personal treasure of mine. He doesn’t have a website, but he does ship. You can find his contact information here.
If you live outside of Florida, there will still be plenty of local honey for you to search out. The Carolinas have their sourweed, the northerners have blueberry, buckwheat and clover, the western folks have mesquite and the rare manzanita, and even the Alaskans have their fireweed honey all the way up where the Northern Lights glow.
So that’s my little essay on honey, and it’s a nice way to add an element of interest to your hot toddy. And by the way, it really is cold in Miami right now. It’s not the kind of icy death I was raised in up north, but my feet and hands are legitimately freezing right now. We’re apparently hitting record lows this week, which is as sour as lemons for Floridians and all our tourists. But I’m making lemonade . . . spiked.