Hot toddy for the body

Illustration by Mark Stivers

The Santa’s Tavern Hot Toddy Competition hosted by Golden Bear is Tuesday, December 4 at 6 p.m. $5 cover or can of food; donations go to the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services;

There are certain comfort foods that remind us of the holidays: a delicious turkey pulled right out of the oven as it lightly crackles, piping hot mashed potatoes with streams of gravy, a perfectly steamed tamale with the ideal ratio of masa-to-meat, or homemade pumpkin pie with a generous dollop of whipped cream. But what of the booze? You can’t have a hearty meal without some tasty libations, especially if the relatives are over for dinner and you know they’re going to be. So if Tio Jaime gives you the cold shoulder during the first course, warm him up with a good old-fashioned hot toddy. It’s the drink that soothes with booze.

One of the world’s oldest cocktails, the hot toddy dates back to the 1600s where a simple recipe of hot water, alcohol and a little sugar were all that was needed to warm your bones inside some noble Englishman’s luxurious estate. Nowadays, hot toddies are spiced with cinnamon sticks and cloves, flavored with citrus and liqueurs, and sweetened with honey and simple syrups.

Dezi Bush has tended bar at the Shady Lady Saloon for nine years. Known for its speakeasy vibe and masterful cocktails, ask any Shady bartender for a hot toddy on a cold day and they’ll oblige. Throughout the years, Bush perfected her recipe that starts with a good Scotch like Famous Grouse or Bank Note. She says any non-peaty Scotch will do, just avoid Islay Scotches because they taste like campfire and will overpower any additional flavors or aromatics.

“Scotch is very approachable. I do: a half-an-ounce of Scotch; I enjoy a half-an-ounce of lemon juice, fresh squeezed; a half-an-ounce of honey-syrup; a half-an-ounce of elderflower liqueur; and a dish of Angostura Bitters,” Bush says. “It tastes like the holidays.”

She also steeps an orange peel that’s studded with cloves, a lemon wheel, a cinnamon stick and a couple of star anise pods in hot water for a “delicious, boozy tea.”

“I’ve made them with rum, I’ve made them with bourbon, I’ve made them with a bunch of different things,” Bush says. “It really just depends on what you like. You can always tweak your juices and syrups and make something fun.”

It’s been said that toddies also have soothing capabilities when the body aches or a terrible head-cold creeps in, so forgo the syrupy medicines and tart cough drops, and instead, drink up buddy. There’s nothing better than a steamy cup of spirits, spices and sweeteners to comfort those achy bones and calm the sinuses.

Baron Stelling, an award-winning bartender at Shady and Bush’s co-worker, says if you ask 10 different bartenders to make a hot toddy, chances are you’ll get 10 different varieties. It’s a personal drink. His take starts with Wild Turkey 101 bourbon, simple syrup, lemon juice and Angostura Bitters to give it some spice. He also finishes with a little bit of shaved nutmeg. As far as the proper vessel goes, Stelling says a preheated ceramic mug will do just fine and it’ll keep the drink warm enough to sip on throughout the night.

“I think the best hot toddies rely on being the most simple,” Stelling says. “The magic of the hot toddy is it’s incredibly diverse and anybody can make one that tastes good.” Cheers to that.