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The Hot Toddy: A “Medicinal” Drink That Might Actually Work

On National Hot Toddy Day, warm up with this tasty drink, whether you’re sick or not

A hot toddy isn't actually medicine, but it can feel like it is. (Dinah Pena/Flickr)
smithsonian.com

It’s National Hot Toddy Day, and not a moment too soon.

As January drags on and even the hardiest of us begin to ponder the grim truth that the season will drag on until March, we’d like to take a moment to talk about one potential winter helper: the hot toddy.

In its classic form, writes Barbara Rowlands for The Telegraph, the drink is served in a glass. It contains, she writes: “a shot of whisky (preferably malt), a teaspoon of honey and a dash of fresh lemon, topped up with boiling water poured over a silver spoon to prevent the glass from cracking.”

Spices can be added to personal preference: fresh ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cinamon sticks, though, she writes, “purists would argue this transforrms toddy into punch.”

Though one story about the toddy is that it was invented by 18th-century Scottish doctors as a medicament, she writes, in fact the drink was invented to disguise the flavor of raw Scotch. “Sugar, dates, saffron, mace, nuts and cinamon were piled on to hide the foul taste,” she writes.

Still, a hot, spicy drink like the toddy may help if you’re sick. The spices stimulate saliva, helping a sore throat, and the lemon and honey will stimulate mucus, she writes, citing Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University. The Mayo Clinic adds that warm liquids can be soothing and help ease congestion, while lemon water with honey can "loosen congestion and help prevent dehydration." One caveat, though: go light on the Scotch, which isn't good for a cold in large doses (obviously).

More importantly, though, the psychological effect of having a comforting warm drink is important, she writes—especially if you’re coming down with something beyond the usual seasonal post-nasal drip. “Stress and anxiety will have an impact on your immune system and lower your resistance,” Eccles told her. “So if you are worried and stressed, you could take a hot toddy in the way you might take a mild sedative or tranquilizer.”

Hot toddies aren’t the only drinks we treat this way: honey and lemon (sans the other ingredients), tea and even at one time Dr. Pepper (yes, people used to drink it hot) are all classic winter comforts.

Even William Faulkner treated ailments with a hot toddy, writes Caroline Hallemann for Town & Country. His niece, she writes, recounted this story: “Pappy alone decided when a Hot Toddy was needed, and he administered it to his patient with the best bedside manner of a country doctor.” He always served it on a silver tray, “admonishing the patient to drink it quickly, before it cooled off. It never failed,” she said.

Today, you can have a hot toddy in many novel forms: chamomile, apple cider, even cranberry (we’re not totally sure about the last one.) But consider sticking to the original: after all, if it was good enough for generations of winter warriors, it’s probably good enough for you.

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