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Taste the Holidays: A Virgin Hot Toddy Recipe

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Taste the Holidays: A Virgin Hot Toddy Recipe

Marie Viljoen December 4, 2023

A surprise hit on the botanical walks I lead, where a picnic rewards the exercise, is the hot toddy that I pour in late fall and winter. When “toddy” is mentioned, eyebrows are raised—some in hope and anticipation, some in trepidation. Because it means alcohol, doesn’t it? It can, but not necessarily. Some eyebrows sink in disappointment when they learn that this is a virgin version. But the surprise, for the eyebrows’ owners, is that their first, steaming sip is a happy one, because this warming toddy tastes satisfyingly grown up. It is portable for picnics, scaleable for big holiday parties, and comforting sipped during a gift-opening pause on Christmas Day.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: A hot toddy (and soup) are portable winter picnic fare.
Above: Cold creek, hot toddy (in a heat-proof Picardie glass).

I call my forager’s version of a hot toddy a Forest Toddy. It is spiced with local, seasonal aromatics, featuring the edible herbs and spices of maritime forests and land-locked woodlands.

Above: A frigid New Year’s Day picnic, with hot Forest Toddies.

The flavors of a hot toddy that tastes of place can shift. They may include the gin-y bittersweetness of juniper (otherwise known as eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana), bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), citrus-like spicebush (Lindera benzoin), sumac species, and the perfumed resin of needled evergreens like fir, hemlock, pine, or spruce (Abies, Tsuga, Pinus and Picea, respectively). Variations I have made include pine cone jam, which you can make or buy; dried magnolia petals, for their gingery, cardamom-like bitterness; and fragrant sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina). I sometimes include mushrooms associated with medicinal benefits, like turkey tail or birch polypore.

Caveat: Does it go without saying that you should never use yew (Taxus), also a needled evergreen? Not only is yew not aromatic, but it is decidedly toxic.

Above: Virgin Forest toddies with hardy orange and fir garnishes.

The fun of this hot toddy recipe is that it is endlessly various and open to creativity. You can glean ingredients from your pantry, garden, farmer’s market, or grocery store. Its success depends on balance: between sweet and tart, tannic and aromatic. Layers of botanical flavor give it a sense of toddy gravitas and the complexity that is often associated with booze. I’m not saying you can’t add a dash of your favorite spirit (bourbon and rye spring to mind), but I can assure you that no one will miss it.

Above: Blood orange and yuzu peel, crushed spicebush, fresh juniper, and bay leaf.

In winter, the juniper in my recipe is fresh, since its season is from late fall through spring; the spicebush is the dried fruit from late summer (or purchased online), or the tree’s aromatic winter twigs, scraped. The fir, well, that is trimmed from my (unsprayed) holiday tree. While fir is the most aromatic of the needled trees, hemlock and spruce have plenty to offer, as do pine needles.

Above: Farmer’s market apple cider.

This particular hot toddy recipe is built on fresh apple cider, so no added sugar is necessary. Its sweetness is tempered by Earl Grey tea (bagged or loose-leaf), the above-mentioned spices, fresh bay leaf (from our indoor bay tree), and by different citrus zests. I like blood orange for its color, yuzu and hardy orange for their unique scents, and lemon for easy acidity. Feel free to play around and substitute other seasonal citrus.

(Aromatic yuzu are in season briefly around the holidays and can be ordered online from Flavors by Bhumi  and from Nicholas Family Farms: DM them via their Instagram @nicholasfamilyfarms)

Above: Hardy orange cheong.

What about the cheong that my recipe calls for? Visit our hardy orange story for the method, as well as the piece about 7 easy ways to use citrus. Making this uncooked, fermented “marmalade” is a delicious and easy winter project. But if you live near a Korean community, or an old-school international supermarket, you might be able to pick some up off a grocery shelf (New Yorkers, I’ve seen it stocked at the the Food Bazaar chain).

Above: Why blood orange? Because it’s beautiful.
Above: Aromatics simmering with apple cider and citrus juices.
Above: Bottle the finished toddy and refrigerate it for up to a week.

Virgin Forest Toddy

Makes 8 servings

Letting all the hot toddy ingredients steep overnight before straining is ideal, for developing depth of flavor. I make one batch a week and bottle it for easy evening sipping. Keep the bottled toddy refrigerated, and heat individual servings either on the stovetop or in a microwave. The recipe doubles and triples well. Good garnishes include fir or spicebush twigs, slices of citrus, or curls of fresh citrus peel.

  • ½ gallon fresh apple cider
  • 3 Tablespoons Earl Grey tea
  • 1/2 cup blood orange juice (about 2-3 oranges)
  • Zest of 1 blood orange
  • ¼ cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Zest and juice of 1 yuzu
  • 6 Fresh bay leaves
  • 1 Tablespoon Spicebush berries, crushed
  • 1 Tablespoon Juniper berries, crushed
  • 4 Fir twigs, 6 inches long
  • 6 slices yuja-cheong (substitute 3 Tablespoons commercial citrus marmalade)

Optional Extras:

  • 1 teaspoon mircoplaned birch polypore
  • 1/4 ounce turkey tail mushroom

To Steep: In a pot combine all the ingredients. Bring the liquid to a boil. After a minute turn off the heat, cover, and infuse overnight (best) or for at least an hour.

To Finish: Strain the toddy through a fine mesh sieve lined with a cotton cloth or multiple layers of cheesecloth. You can now decant the toddy into a bottle and store in the refrigerator for up to a week, to heat in individual servings. Otherwise, return all the strained liquid to the pot, bring to a simmer, and serve in heatproof glasses or mugs.

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