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One of the things that I love doing on Ramshackle Pantry is researching the origins and history of the different topics I cover. I investigated the origins of the hamburger and looked into the history of the taco. I feel like this helps to give me a real feel for what the drink is about and a sense of what is trying to be accomplished with the cocktail. Today, we are going to examine hot toddy history.

Hot Toddy History is Clear as Mud, and as expected

One thing I have learned about food and cocktail history is that, often, the reality is muddled. There are often several claims to the origin. There is some truth tied to multiple origins, yet we cannot definitively attribute one. Additionally, when a food item or cocktail is really great, sometimes it is really hard to narrow down the exact beginning of a thing to one specific moment in time. Perhaps sometimes a creation just evolves naturally into existence. Maybe a recipe just starts to naturally progress and gain momentum as times change, cooking technology change, and as people immigrate and emigrate around the globe.

The hot toddy history is a little different. I feel like it isn’t as muddled as some of the other topics I have covered. Unlike the Mojito or the Manhattan, there just isn’t as big of business behind the meager hot toddy. There are not bars trying to use the creation of a hot toddy as a marketing tool, like with the Mojito and Ernest Hemingway.  The history of the hot toddy appears to have a fairly limited number of possibilities. One theory really stood out to me.

I have found three main origin stories that I am going to cover. I will start off with the ones that I least believe and move to the one that I believe to be the story. If you have or find information about any of these topics,  please reach out to me and let me know. First, I love this stuff. Second, I am researching and learning as I go. I would love active participation in uncovering new and interesting hot toddy tidbits.

Hot Toddy Origin Theory 1 – Dr. Robert Bentley Todd

Have you ever heard that if you have a sore throat to drink a hot toddy? I have. It really makes sense. Honey… tea… hot fluid. Ok, maybe the whiskey part is stretching it, but it was not uncommon for whiskey to be prescribed by medical doctors back in the day. Whiskey was medicine. In fact, it really was the main form of anesthesia for a very long time. Do you need to have your leg amputated? Better drink up before they start holding you down. Nice thought, huh?

The theory goes that Dr. Robert Bentley Todd often prescribed a hot drink of brandy, cinnamon, sugar, and water. And his name was Todd. So the theory goes that a combination of prescription habits along with his name smooshed together in the cocktail legend to form what we know as a “Hot Toddy.”

It is kind of a cool origin, but just cannot be true. Rum and Brandy Toddy was mentioned in a 1767 periodical; years before the esteemed doctor (who was actually known for other stuff) was born.

Theory 2 – Palm Wine – Toddy

A second theory that circulates online probably has more to do with confusion than being an actual origin story. There is another alcoholic drink called toddy. This is the fermented sap of various palm trees. Toddy is just a different name for it. While it has been, and is, a popular drink around the globe, it is not referring to the same drink we are referring to with a hot toddy. The history of this drink likely goes back further than the hot toddy but does not appear to be the same thing. One is a wine that is meant to be served cool with origins in tropical areas. The other is a hot drink that calls for a spirit and seems better served in cooler temperatures.

I just do not think that palm wine, also called toddy, is the same thing as the hot toddy we are covering.

Theory 3 – Tod’s Well

This is the origin story that I think is the right one. Apparently, there was a well near Edinburgh, Scotland that had the name Three Foxes Well. The same well was also known as Tod’s Well. Tod’s Well was one of the few sources of clean water in the area. So the health properties of water from Tod’s Well were well known.

So, we know that spirits, such as whiskey were counted as a medicinal liquid that was prescribed by doctors. Some crazy people seem to think that whiskey is not the most pleasant to drink straight. Particularly in the early years of whiskey making, when the alcohol was not aged. The theory goes that all of the accompaniments, sugar, and water, started to become included in the doctor’s prescription. Whiskey was perscribed, but sugar and water were added to make the drink more palatable to those with dainty taste constitutions.

Combine the medicinal miracle of whiskey with the super healthy water of Tod’s Well and there you have it… a Hot Toddy big bang.

Bringing It All Together

The third theory seems right, doesn’t it? It has the right amount of historical facts and common sense. It all seems to come together. Next time you think of a hot toddy, remember that it has its origins where medicine and clean water met. Somewhere in the cool capital of Scotland runs the ancient remains of Tod’s Well and hot toddy history.

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  1. OK, I don’t date back to the frontier days, but I’m a second-generation American of Eastern-European immigrants, and … in cultural terms, that’s a lot like dating back to frontier days. When I was a kid, if I had a toothache, my grandmother would give me a teaspoon of whiskey to hold in my mouth over the ache. I think I was not supposed to swallow it. Whoops. Is that where my love of whiskey comes from today? Hmm.