Drinks come into and out of vogue, fashions change and tastes move with the times. Yet some leave a lasting impression. Remember the mojito craze of the early 2000’s? A generation of bartenders bear the physical and mental scars. Today the way more challenging to drink, but straightforward to prepare Negroni is having its moment, in case you had not noticed…
But in honour of National Hot Toddy day, which apparently was yesterday, and also looking ahead to Burns night at the end of the month we’re taking a moment to carefully prepare and then even more carefully raise a glass to one of the most enduring and widely known (yet at the same time sort of perpetually always just out of fashion) drinks; the hot toddy.
Even the name sounds somewhat dated, but this drink has a story to tell, and yields more influence in history than it’s current clout might suggest.
Origins; a drop of toddy history
Once you start looking into the origins of any drink, you’re often thrown down a rabbit hole of cocktail mythology, often presented with two possible origin stories before arriving somewhat murkily at a statement that suggests nobody really knows, but the truth is probably a combination of the two. The toddy is no exception, but its history seems somewhat harder to refute. The word ‘taddy’ found its way into common use in Britain by the late 1700’s one of many terms appropriated from a far flung conquered culture, in this case from Hindi, where the word ‘taddy’ was defined as a ‘fermented drink from palm sap.’ Beyond the name, there’s little resemblance. However, what’s clear is that in cold winter months in taverns of England and Scotland (and apparently Edinburgh in particular), hot water was added to whisky to make it more palatable and warming. Medicinal origins! As spice trades opened up with the expansion of the empire, they would have been thrown in as a way to elevate the serve - nutmeg cloves and cinnamon were the opulent additions of the day to a variety of foodstuffs. There’s also stories involving an Irish doctor by the name of Robert Bentley Todd, who prescribed toddy serves for all sorts of ailments. Whilst the history is not clear, what is clear is that by the mid 1800’s the hot toddy, comprised of whisky, hot water and spices had established itself not just as a winter serve in Scotland, but as a medicinal drink across the colonial empire. An article appearing in Burlington Free Press in 1837 speaks of hot toddy’s being the idea way to rid children of the cold.
In his excellent book charting the history of blending through the lens of Johnnie Walker, (a must read for anyone remotely interested in the history of this incredible brand) Dr Nicholas Morgan references ‘a great gulf stream of toddy’. In uncovering evidence about the propensity of blended whisky in Scotland as far back as the 1820’s he uncovers quotes from the likes of a certain Charles Tovey, who states:
“You may find it at the after dinner table of the aristocracy, mingling its fumes with the odours of Lafitte or Romanee Conti, and many a noble man will leave the choicest wine to indulge in his glass of toddy. The middle classes and tradesmen most prefer it to any other spirit or wine.”
Dr Nicholas Morgan comments that the preparation and consumption of toddy was the most common ‘respectable’ form of whisky consumption as opposed to ‘dram drinking’. The combination of a ritual (similar to the preparation of tea - the high society drink du jour) with various accessories an opportunity for people to ‘show off their wares’ as the ritual involved “a degree of domestic paraphernalia such as toddy kettles, jugs, ladles and spoons.” Could it be that Toddy’s were the warm martini’s of their day!? We like to think so.
Spirit Merchants, Blenders and Toddy Mixtures
Whisky in the mid 1800’s was still sold by grocers and spirit merchants, blending was done in store to suit the palate of the customers that visited. With all the ingredients to hand, it makes sense that grocers would essentially batch toddy mixtures using different whiskies and spices, making things simple for their customers and no doubt increasing their margins at the same time. Dr Nicholas Morgan suggests that these ‘toddy mixtures’, possibly sweetened and branded as the grocer’s own recipe were potentially some of the earliest examples of blended whisky being sold under brand names. Indeed, history suggests that it was the popularity of the practice of taking a toddy that perhaps drove the distribution of some of these brands out with their locale, and laid the foundations for some of the original blended whisky brands that emerged from this era.
In places like Glasgow, Toddy was everywhere, and as the main way in which whisky was consumed, the serve would have driven the mindset in which the whisky was created. Such was the ubiquity of the toddy serve, that not only were whiskies branded to associate themselves with the serve, the recipes would have been developed specifically to work with that serve.
A Woven whisky made (in part) for toddy drinking.
We live in an age spirits “made for mixing” - a “have it your way!” mentality where brands have sought to make their offerings as versatile as possible. When we read about whisky blenders of old optimising their recipes to work in a specific serve, we thought it novel. But the idea took hold there was something alluring to us in the idea of blending a whisky that was optimised for a single serve (in this case a toddy). As a creative project, it seemed an interesting challenge. The way flavours work at higher temperature, diluted with hot water, not to mention the added complexity and opportunity to harmonise with other flavours like spices and the underlying sweetness.
Additionally, it closed the loop between whisky creator and consumer. The idea of being ‘end to end’ rather than just making a blend and forgetting about it really appeals to us as a practice. As ex bartenders, turned spirits people, turned whisky makers - we are always trying to think past the moment of competition of the product toward trying to think about where or how the blend might be consumed.
The deviation in this example though, lies in the fact that nobody is really thinking about toddies just now, unless they have a cold. But the idea of them being served everywhere from boutiques to grocery stores to bars and taverns really appeals to us. A symbol of convivial hospitality, a welcoming warming embrace… we want to save the toddy from the alternative medical cabinet and bring the toddy back into popular consciousness as a civilised way of taking the edge off in winter.
To that end part of the thinking behind Experience N.5 / Joy in nature was informed by a desire to make a whisky that sang in Hot toddies. Campbeltown Whiskies, heavier and oily, even those light in flavour was an instant go-to (it’s fast becoming our favourite region of whisky to blend with) and a development process that sought to ensure subtle delicate notes would be carried through the blend. In the lab, Pete started using hot water to cut samples, assessing the aromas that came out of the glass as an indication of which notes might carry through a toddy serve. And the body of the whisky was kept light, in the understanding that a richness would be imparted by the sweet element of the toddy - either sugar or honey. And lastly, a fresh herbal flavour profile was created by the combination of whiskies, which we felt provided the idea base for layering traditional toddy spices upon.
In truth, we got really into this project, going as far as starting to infuse herbs and spices that we found on our walks into prototype bottles of the whisky. This act in itself brought to mind ancient heritage, for early versions of whisky were commonly infused with foraged herbs or spices. This, as well as the cask maturation element that played out in the whiskies we used for this blend layered together ideas that brought us to the subtitle; joy in nature.
How to make a hot toddy:
Here's a simple recipe that always manages to hit the spot, although we fully encourage experimenting with other ingredients once you've mastered the basics.
40ml Woven Experience N.5
20ml Freshly squeezed lemon juice
One teaspoon Runny Honey
1 clove, dash nutmeg powder
100ml Hot Water
Star anise and dehydrated orange wheel (optional)
Method: Add whisky spices, honey and half the hot water then stir to integrate and dissolve. Add lemon juice and remaining hot water with garnish.