Thanks to our puritanical roots, Americans see hot toddies as a kind of medicine rather than a decadent cocktail. You order one if you're sick, or if you fear you're coming down with something, or if the cold weather demands it. Though the lemon and honey do offer some mild relief of cold symptoms, according to a report in the Smithsonian magazine, the toddy was created for the same reason most cocktails were created: to disguise the foul flavor of rotgut. We would probably be better off if we'd just allow ourselves the pleasure for once, but if convincing ourselves that toddies are medicine means we can drink even when we're sick, then I'm all for it.
At home, I'm a purist: hot water, whiskey, a slice of fresh lemon. (I'll throw honey in only when I'm fighting off a sore throat.) But when I go out for a toddy, I like a bit of a performance.
The Duke of Toddy at Corvus & Co. on Capitol Hill
Corvus & Co. makes its toddy with bourbon, house-made cinnamon syrup, honey, allspice dram, fresh lemon, a desiccated lemon wheel with four or five cloves poked in, and a cinnamon stick. They serve it "hot as a son of a gun," as the bartender said, in a tall glass mug.
The drink is a pretty, murky amber color, with lots of spice-warmth on the nose. Cinnamon and citrus dominate the flavor profile, making you feel like you're sipping a healthful elixir. On the whole, the toddy complements the bar's warm, gothic interior, which is strung with red lights and full of good music. At $10, it's also affordable.
The Acorn Toddy at Oak on Beacon Hill
If the aims of the toddy are to comfort, medicate, and numb, the Acorn Toddy at Oak takes that last charge the most seriously. Bartenders make this clean but kind of syrupy winter warmer with Old Crow, amaro (a citrusy and herby liqueur), agave, and a fresh lemon with four cloves in it. It lacks the spicy notes normally provided by a cinnamon stick, but it doesn't lack authority. Two of these would have me reaching for my blanket and falling asleep on the big oak bar. At $9.50, it's the cheapest toddy on this list.
The Ron Toddy at Goldfinch Tavern in Downtown
The Ron Toddy is pricey mostly because it's made with semi-pricey Ron Zacapa rum, blackberry-maple honey, cinnamon, cardamom, and lemon. Initially, it threatens to be too sweet, but then the cinnamon burns and the lemon lifts it out of trouble. A wide-mouth glass mug offers a good spa-like steaming for optimum comfort. But the real joy of the cocktail is the Goldfinch's cozy environs. The fire in the middle of the room and the amber-light energy of the place make you feel like you're drinking a hot toddy inside of a hot toddy. Top-notch. Goes for $19.