The Hot Toddy Through History

This warm, simple and soothing creation has been praised for centuries as a go-to treatment for seasonal illnesses.


Winter is in full swing, and so is flu season. For many years, I’ve heard that a hot toddy can be a magical cure for cold and flu symptoms. As fate would have it, January 11 is National Hot Toddy Day, and I just happen to have a cold right now. So let’s check out the history of this tasty remedy and put its powers to the test.

A hot toddy is fairly simple to make – basically all you need is hot water, sugar and spices. Nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger are popular, in combination with a brown liquor like whiskey or rum. Cultures around the world have their own versions, and because of the drink’s simplicity, its history is a little muddled.

There is some consensus that the drink was created in India during the 1600s and known as a  tārī, made with fermented palm sap and served cold. In the 1700s, while India was under British rule, the tārī was officially recorded as a “beverage made of alcoholic liquor with hot water, sugar and spices.” As British trade routes expanded, the drink became popular in the United Kingdom, and was subsequently used as a cure-all against the harsh rigors of winter.

That said, there are other origin stories that lay claim to the hot toddy. Some Scots believe it’s not a real hot toddy  unless it’s made with water from Tod’s Well in Edinburgh. Others say an Irish doctor named  Robert Bently Todd invented the beverage to ward off illness (he reportedly prescribed a mix of hot brandy, cinnamon and sugar water).

By the 19th century, the concoction was in wide use throughout Europe and Colonial America. In an 1837 article entitled “How to Take Cold” in the Burlington Free Press, the hot toddy was heralded as a cure-all: “If your child begins to snuffle occasionally, to have red eyes, or a little deafness; if his skin feels dry and hot, and his breath is feverish – you have now an opportunity of doing your work much faster than ever before. Ply him well with hot stimulating drinks, of which hot toddy is the best.”

The Burlington paper might have taken things too far in presenting the hot toddy as a panacea, but the question remains: Will a hot toddy cure your cold? Yes and no.

The drink does contain ingredients that can ease symptoms. Information published by the Mayo Clinic indicates that warm liquids can be soothing, while lemon water with honey can “loosen congestion and help prevent dehydration.” According to an article in The Telegraph, which quotes Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University, “The spices stimulate saliva, helping a sore throat, and the lemon and honey will stimulate mucus.” There is one caveat – go light on the liquor, as it isn’t good for a cold in large doses.

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

When I felt this cold coming on, I decided to give it a try. I made up what I call a “California Hot Toddy,” consisting of hot water, lemon, honey, bourbon and turmeric tea. It relaxed me a bit, and I felt warm and toasty inside. It also seemed to soothe my congestion. I did feel better the next morning, but in full disclosure, I also slept a lot and took some Nyquil. So this was not a controlled scientific experiment, and I can’t say it was all the hot toddy’s doing. But, when I was cuddled up on the couch feeling awful, it seemed like the perfect drink to have in hand.

Photos styled by Rachel Rivers