Making a grown-up toddy is difficult

January 26, 1992|By Molly O'Neill | Molly O'Neill,New York Times News Service

A champagne fete is usually giddy; punch and eggnog summon memories of office parties past; cocktails are individual roads to a communal state. The hot toddy, on the other hand, is an intimate libation.

To serve a toddy is to court collective childhood, to stitch a seam between public life and private worlds, to risk guests' wistfulness for flannel nighties.

A crystal flute carries one message from fingers to brain; a heavy, hot mug carries another. Some toddy drinkers believe the message is enhanced by the physiological properties of warmed alcohol.

A warmed shot is a mellowing shot, they say. And that may explain why warm cocktails are most often served at the end of a meal: It's a civilized way of saying good night.

The physiological school of thought may also explain the family of caffeine-based toddies sired by Irish coffee. In a Dublin pub, a bartender once referred to the drink as a "the great equalizer." He meant that the medium of eye-opening caffeine neutralized the sedative slug of whiskey in the drink. And, he allowed, the two swelling aromas may carry a psychological cue. One sniff says, "Wake up, it's coffee." The next says, "Relax, it's a drink."

A waiter flaming a cafe brulot in a New Orleans restaurant once said the magic wasn't the spectacle of flames that danced from the drink or the balance of caffeine with various liqueurs, but the warmth itself. Consider, the waiter said, the balm of steam. Isn't it reassuring to know the home fires are burning?

This reassurance may explain all the sweet, creamy hot drinks that have appeared on restaurant menus in the last couple of years. Warmed coffee or cocoa or coconut-cream liqueurs are about as close to hot chocolate as one can get while maintaining some pretense of adulthood.

Personally, I'd rather have a cup of cocoa, straight, with a friend. Or hot milk with vanilla, which was my father's home remedy for sleep-resistant children.

Adding whiskey and a social setting to warm and sweet beverages seems to me like putting stiletto heels on a faithful pair of fuzzy bunny slippers.

Unless one wants a thumb-sucking dinner party, the evocative power of a warm cocktail should be mitigated with savory, adult flavors. Gary Regan, the author of "The Bartender's Bible" (HarperCollins, 1991), said in a telephone interview that wise men and women have been trying to find that balance throughout history, at least throughout the history of warm cocktails.

In the beginning, he says, there was a pagan ritual of winter in which people bundled up and went from apple orchard to apple orchard giving thanks.

To show that they were grateful, farmers would invite them in and give them spiked hot cider. The tradition was such a powerful one that the Christian church co-opted it, Mr. Regan says. Christmas caroling is the modern-day version of apple-orchard praising, he says, and all hot toddies descend from mulled cider.

He cites the hot mulled wines of Central Europe, the wassails or hot punches of Northern Europe, gloggs, hot buttered rums and eggnogs that were the forerunners of hot coffee cocktails and creams. People may not realize it, he says, but the seasonal urge for a toddy is universal.

To sip a toddy is to share the universal comfort of an ancient thermal spring. Mr. Regan is no etymologist, but he is convinced that between the word "toddy" and "restorative" exists a holy link.

"When people came in from the cold, my grandmother would fill a tankard with stout and plunge a hot poker in it to make it sizzle and steam," he said, and the cold and the weary were grateful.

A similar gratitude flickers through the eyes of connoisseurs cupping a warmed Cognac, the skier inhaling a hot soup's steam, the flu victim sipping a hot tea with lemon, honey and whisky. The great equalizer is greatly appreciated.

But to make a social toddy remains a delicate task. Warmth, the main ingredient, has the ability to infantilize if not properly mitigated. A savory, sophisticated mixer is a smart counterpoint.

Being served a spiked wild mushroom bouillon or a sturdy meat broth cocktail before a winter dinner or sipping a feisty tequila or vodka Boiled Merry before brunch on a snowy day won't reduce guests to baby talk. But it will provide a very old and very common comfort that could turn just another holiday party into a cozy respite with a lingering spell.

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