Far be it from us to judge anyone for toting a bota bag or bottle (or three) of whiskey into the wild: There are physiological and psychological reasons for upping your backcountry bar game. Returning to camp for a hot toddy can be restorative, both mentally and physically. Just don’t forget that alcohol can give you a false sense of warmth while actually lowering your body temperature, so drink in moderation when you’re in the backcountry and far from medical aid.
The Origins of the Hot Toddy
The hot toddy (the term refers to a cocktail category consisting of hot water, a brown spirit like whisky, and sweetener, often with the addition of spices and an acidic component like lemon) is believed to have originated in colonial India. Plantation workers sipped palm wine derived from tree sap to restore electrolytes, but another theory credits 18th century Scots who heated their whisky to suppress the cold, as well as the harshness of subpar spirits. By the 19th century, a hot elixir of brandy, spices, sugar, and water was a commonly prescribed curative in the United Kingdom; Colonial Americans favored aged rum.
The Ideal Winter Cocktail
Regardless of origin, the toddy has become synonymous with winter recreation, primarily as a midday warmup or après activity beverage. “A toddy helps clear the sinuses and ease a dry or sore throat,” says Davin Topel, a hunting and fishing guide and head distiller at Real Spirits Distilling Company in the Texas Hill Country just outside of Austin. “They’re especially effective when you include ingredients with therapeutic properties like a ginger-turmeric tea (which collectively help soothe nausea, congestion and inflammation), or spirits with curative attributes because the alcohol helps them absorb into the bloodstream or nasal passages via steam. Consumed in moderation, toddies are a healthy way to wind down after a day of recreating outside.”
Topel, a former ski patroller in Park City, Utah, also finds meaning in the preparations that go with readying for an outdoor adventure and assembling a backcountry bar, as opposed to just bringing a bottle or flask. “I love the ritual of packing for a day out and assembling the ingredients and some minimalist equipment on-site,” he says. “You’re keeping warm by moving- scouting a place to camp or rest, probing, digging a pit, prepping- and staying limber. The process of making an actual cocktail keeps your brain sharp- particularly important at altitude and in winter.”
In-field prep is also easy. “I just heat water on a stove or in a French press and add the tea and other flavoring agents to my camp cup and add the hot liquid,” says Topel, but if you prefer, you can also pre-batch toddies at home and tote them in a thermos.
If you’re using snowmelt, it’s wise to bring a water treatment system. “Sure, you’re boiling the water, but a filter will remove debris and a purifier really ensures you’re removing contaminants,” says Topel. A piece of muslin, double-layered cheesecloth or tea ball can be used in place of a filter for steeping or straining if you’re boiling the water long enough.
Toddy Spirits & Flavors
Toddies can be as simple as hot water or tea, spirit and sweetener, or you can go more complex by incorporating syrups, infusions, tinctures, spices, herbs or powders. Keep a few rules of thumb in mind and your hot winter drink will be a success:
- Stick with brown (aged) spirits. Whiskey, rum, brandy, amaro, liqueurs and fortified wines (sherry, port, Madeira) are all excellent in toddies. White spirits are generally either too harsh if poorly made or too delicate for use in hot drinks, though (as seen later) they can make for a unique toddy.
- Buy quality spirits. Anyone who’s ever suffered the burn from cheap or aggressively high-proof spirits understands it’s worth ignoring the bottom shelf at the liquor store. Heat exacerbates off-flavors and nasal discomfort in the form of steam. Your head will also thank you later if you avoid excessively sugary beverages and overindulgence, particularly at altitude. “Alcohol thins the blood, so it’s critical to know your limit and hydrate with water as you imbibe,” says Topel. “If you do drink too much, get out of the backcountry as soon as possible.”
- Focus on balance. Just as you would a cold cocktail, strive for harmony when introducing flavors to your toddy. A sweet, syrupy liqueur doesn’t require additional sugar, honey or agave, while a bitter spirit like Fernet, which goes well with black tea, needs a hit of sweet to keep the tannins in check.
Topel’s favorite toddy is one of his own creation called The Golden Fleece (get the recipe below), made with chamomile tea, honey local to wherever he happens to be recreating, Golden Milk—a commercial turmeric-based powder made for use in smoothies or coffee drinks—and a white spirit he launched two years ago called Totem. “I wanted to create a spirit that reflected my passion for the outdoors—hunting, fishing, rafting, snowboarding, backpacking,” says Topel. “Totem is made from botanicals I forage myself, as well as other ingredients native to Texas.”
Hyperlocal ingredients can make any cocktail truly shine. Topel’s signature spirit is inspired by Texas and pechuga, a type of mezcal made with animal protein that is suspended above the still’s chamber. The alcohol vapors rising from the still ‘cook’ the meat, while the fat and juice drip into the distillate, giving the resulting spirit a complex, savory flavor. An avid hunter, forager and conservationist, Topel uses the uncooked ham of a feral hog he hunts in the fall for Totem’s protein source. The animals are opportunistic omnivores and have had a devastating impact on parts of Texas.
Pechugas are often supplemented with local grains, fruit or nuts, and consumed for special occasions like weddings, births and other celebrations. Totem is flavored with foraged ingredients like dewberries and bottlebrush leaves; Topel spends all year harvesting and sourcing various botanicals from regional Texas growers.
Try sourcing local spirits for your backcountry bar and create your own unique adventure cocktail.
Making Your Own Backcountry Hot Toddy
No need to lug expensive or excessive barware into the backcountry; toddies can be made with items you likely already own.
- MSR’s compact, ultralight stoves are perfect for toddy-making, particularly the PocketRocket2 and WhisperLite Universal
- Water treatment system, like MSR’s HyperFlow Microfilter
- Mini cutting board
- MSR’s MugMate Coffee/Tea Strainer or French Press
- Compartment spice box for loose tea, fresh nutmeg (you’ll need a grater; this 5.5-inch version can also be used for aged cheese or baking chocolate) or powders
Hot Toddy Tips:
- Leave the glass at home and decant spirits into a flask.
- Pre-batch toddies in a thermos. You’ll lose some of the quality and complexities, so keep the recipe simple and remember that tea can become highly tannic and bitter if not consumed fresh.
- Avoid overly sugary spirits or components that further contribute to dehydration.
- Purchase locally made spirits and ingredients when possible to support regional makers and foodsheds.
- Don’t forget the garnishes: jarred Luxardo cherries, dehydrated citrus wheels or peel, dried apples. If you’re camping in summer, critter-proof any garnishes or sweet ingredients as you would any other food.
- Alpine spirits classically used in toddies are also fun. Try Genepy, Braulio Alpine Amaro, Sfumato Rabararo, or Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur.
Backcountry Hot Toddy Recipes
#1 The Classic Hot Toddy
This universal recipe is an all-purpose template that lends itself to experimenting. Try swapping bourbon, rye, rum or Calvados for the Irish whisky. You can also add ingredients like a cinnamon stick or star anise pod and tea instead of water (chai, ginger, apple, citrus, or vanilla would be good choices) to amp up the flavor.
- 1.5 ounces Irish whisky or brown spirit of your choice
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 cup hot water or tea
- Heat water until boiling. If using tea, turn off the stove, add the tea and steep for the recommended time; remove tea bag.
- Pour water/tea into a camp mug, add honey and stir.
- Add whisky and lemon juice. Garnish with a twist of lemon, if desired. Enjoy!
Hot Toddy Flavor Suggestions:
- Calvados or other apple brandy with ginger tea, honey and fresh ginger
- Bourbon with orange-ginger tea, honey and a dried apple garnish
- Dark rum with Orange Pekoe or chai tea, cinnamon and vanilla syrup
#2 The Golden Fleece
Topel created this soothing toddy for brisk fall and winter nights. If Totem isn’t sold in your state, substitute an unaged (joven or blanco) mezcal. Serves 1.
- 3 ounces whole milk (oat milk is a good non-dairy substitute)
- 3 ounces hot water
- Chamomile tea, bag or loose leaf with strainer
- 1 teaspoon Golden Milk powder (available at Whole Foods or on Amazon; Topel says to use whatever brand you like best)
- ½ tablespoon local honey
- 1 ½ ounces Totem spirits
- Garnish: cinnamon stick and freshly grated nutmeg
- Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan.
- Turn off the stove, add the tea and steep for the recommended time; remove tea bag or strainer.
- Add whole milk to the tea and heat gently until warm, stirring to prevent scorching. Remove from heat.
- Put Golden Milk powder into a mug. Pour the mixture in and stir to combine. Using the cinnamon stick, gently stir in honey.
- Add Totem and top with grated nutmeg. Cheers!
Laurel Miller is an Austin-based food, spirits and travel writer and editor. Despite her Texas locale, she’s obsessed with the mountains and whitewater, but breakfast tacos run a close third. She’s at sustainablekitchen.com.