THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO TAKING COPIOUS AMOUNTS OF TEPIFYING AND EFFICACIOUS BEVERAGE WHEN INCONVENIENCED BY FRIGHTFULLY FRIGID INCLEMENCY OF THE ELEMENTS
So – December – a fine, fresh, frosty time of year. The mercury is falling and the first snows of winter have swirled around The Trossachs (which – I might tell you – is not a particularly comforting thing to endure).
It’s the season where home and hearth begins to grow ever more welcoming, as does the drinks cabinet and its edifying selection of fine malts; and oatcakes – them too. There is, however, a more generally accepted idea of what ought to constitute an appropriate tipple when the hoar frosts are touching up spruce bushes with their wintry vajazzle and the haggis have forsaken gambolling across the heathery moors for the dormant snugness of their holts and bolt-holes. This, of course, is the Hot Toddy – a winter warmer of enduring and great renown.
Now considered to be pretty much anything vaguely alcoholic which has been warmed or mulled to be taken when it’s a bit fresh out, more often than not with a few allspice berries waved in its general direction for additional yuletidinous effect, the toddy has a lengthy history and, as with all such enduring drink-related traditions, its own hodgepodge of associated paraphernalia and protocols – of which more in a wee while.
As ever with these things though, we must first uncover the origins of the name itself and the first demonstrations of its conventions; for these, we are required to refer in part to a most magnificent book – “The English Rogue: Continued in the Life of Meriton Latroon” – which is a mid 17th century novel (known as a picaresque). Described by literary critics of the day as “a catalogue of petty waggeries”, it’s basically a compendium of the trickeries and divers connivances by which sundry ne’erdowells would seek to defraud honest gentlefolk in order to procure a dishonest penny or two. The hero of one passage in the book is described as writing a note to be left for someone to find and “leaving it nail’d to a toddy-tree on the shore”. This, it can be established with relatively simple research, is referring to a toddy palm – one of a family of trees growing predominantly across South East Asia – particularly around the Eastern shores of the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal. It’s the first recorded occasion on which the word appears (in context) in my archive of research material. These toddy trees would be tapped by natives for their sap, which would then be fermented and used to make palm wine – a sweet, cloudy-white hooch that had any number of local names, but which was known to Englishmen who came across its intoxicant traits simply as “toddy”. The sap would become alcoholic just a few hours after having been drawn from the palms, with little or no intervention required, yeast molecules that were abundant in the humid atmosphere reacting with the latent sugars it contained. It would quickly grow in strength and then, after just a few days’ fermentation, turn to an undrinkable, sour mash.
However, the ingenious vanguardsmen of Britain’s imperialist expansion were nothing if not resourceful when it came to the fabrication of alcoholic beverages for their own edification and delight, and it swiftly became apparent that distilling the not-quite-spoiled toddy created a darker, yet more potent brew which was to become known as arrack, or just rack.
Thence to the annals of factual reportage, rather than Meriton Latroon’s fictional progress, and we are advised in 1698’s “Account of East India and Persia”, that – perhaps setting the standards still observed to this day – the British abroad were perceived as being “…very respectful, unless the seamen or soldiers are drunk, either with Toddy or Bang (a pleasant intoxicating seed mixed with milk) – then they are monarchs, and it is madness !” It is again apparent just how prescient our early ambassadors were with their pursuit of rest and relaxation in foreign climes: bang is a concoction made with cannabis paste, so Brits were partying long and hard in to the night hundreds of years before Space, Pacha and Manumission hosted our more contemporaneously exported revellers – to the enduring shame of pretty much everyone !
It wasn’t all wild nights and wet tee shirt competitions though; toddy – and even bang – were also used to mollify mewling infants, initially a practise observed in the native inhabitants of the East Indies. Similar usage was brought back to Britain by way of the growing trade conduit that reached half way around the globe, but by the 1730’s it was being roundly denounced and considered somewhat barbaric. Volume Two of the “Millennial Harbinger” opines that “to give to infants…such detestable compositions as milk-punch (bang), wine, porter sangaree or toddy…ought to be an indictable offence at common law”. However, the die had been cast, and from this point on, toddy in its implanted British parlance began to take on a broader definition than just referring to palm wine, and the name was applied to any sweet, alcoholic preparation – particularly one which was intend to provide comfort and succour to those who would partake, with the intention of being gently nudged towards soporific bliss.
The growth of toddy’s standing in polite society then began to stagnate a little, and it’s not until the turn of the 19th century that it begins to reappear in earnest. Notes made by an American observer in his “Journals of Travels in England, Holland and Scotland” (1805) describe the sequence of events at a formal dinner hosted in Edinburgh. At the end of the meal “immediately after the (table)cloth is removed, rum, gin, whisky or other ardent spirits are placed upon the table” and the hostess – “the lady who presides” - will ask her guests “will you drink a dram?” A glass of raw sprits is then passed around the table, being “replenished as fast as it is emptied” until it has made a full circuit, or maybe two. This practice is considered, however, to be no more than “an interlude before the regular round of wine drinking commences” – bear in mind that this is all in addition to whatever has already been knocked back during dinner ! Eventually, we are told that “dinners and suppers when they are meant to be hospitable, are here (in Edinburgh) concluded buy the drinking of a hot toddy”. The protocols of what is tantamount to a ceremonial rite are then detailed; a pitcher of hot water is placed in the centre of the table, and each guest is furnished with a large foot-glass which accommodates nearly a full pint. In this glass – or rummer – the diners are invited to mix their own potation of water, sugar and spirits from where, once finished, it is served by the use of individual wooden ladles in to the wine glass from which it will finally be consumed. The ladies, we are advised, are as a matter of course not provided with foot glasses, but gentlemen – occasionally, and presumably with importuneous forethought – ladle out their own hot toddy in to the wine glasses of their female dinner companions, who thus partake of the beverage – “but only with much seemly moderation” !
Whether an antique rummer was used as a “mixing bowl” for toddy, rather than being reserved for other less abrasive tasks, can be easily ascertained by taking a close look at the inside of the bowl towards the bottom where it joins the stem. As the mixing process involved grinding lumps of sugar loaf in to the water and spirt, rummers which were used for this purpose will always have a myriad of tiny scratches on their inner surface, giving a very similar sort of opaqued “mossing” to that which can be found under the rim of a glass’s foot where it has been pushed across stone mantles, rough bar tops or table surfaces over the years. It’s wear and tear, of course, but wear and tear which denotes constant use rather than careless keeping, and as such it should be considered to add to the provenance of a piece rather than to diminish its worth to any great degree. Like the holes in a favourite, comfortable pair of shoes – or a well-worn, slightly threadbare sporran (even if your partner continually urges you to dispense with such treasured items, eh !).
It’s worth quoting the closing paragraph of our correspondent’s description of events, summing up the peculiarities of alcoholic consumption which he has just witnessed:
“You will perhaps infer that such habits must lead to intemperance; it cannot be doubted that they have a bad tendency, and, although I have never seen a single instance of excess, in this way, it may well be presumed that the fumes of such a hot inebriating mixture must occasionally turn the brains of parties not restrained by considerations of decorum or religion.”
And so we can see that by the early part of the Regency period all the parts of what was then the hot toddy ritual are in place; the communal rummer, the ladles, the requirement for stirrers to crush sugar loaf as it is mixed with the water and spirits, and the individual glasses. There is however, one last part of the rite which we cannot overlook – the toddy lifter. This, to be fair, is no more than alternative to the ladle – but a far more elegant and impressive piece than what amounts to nothing more than a glorified spoon. They are basically glass tubes, open at both ends, flared at the base and with a thumb-sized aperture at the opposite, narrower end. Using the tried and tested method first pioneered by the likes of Archimedes, Aristolbulus and other luminaries of the ancient world, the flared end of the lifter would be immersed (carefully) in to the serving rummer to a depth at which it enclosed a reasonable amount of toddy; the open, top end would then be sealed by pressure from the user’s thumb and – with a vacuum in place – the whole assembly could then be lifted up and out of the rummer and held over the drinking vessel, at which point raising the thumb would break the seal and deposit the contents of the lifter smartly in to the waiting glass, ready for immediate consumption. So rapt were the good folk of middle England – and Scotland, of course – with this practical application of basic science that toddy lifters were produced in vast numbers during the first half of the 19th century. Fortunately for us, this means that although the environment in which they were used was not particularly conducive to the careful conservation of such delicate pieces, there are still a considerable number available to collectors, and that – consequently – they are not prohibitively expensive. Unless cracked or otherwise non-airtight (or should you have a small thumb – Donald Trump need not apply), these near-200 year old articles will still work perfectly, and offer an ideal opportunity to indulge in what we are always at pains to point out is absolutely the preferred method for enjoying antique glassware – putting it to its originally intended use !
Our pictures show (by row) toddy lifters, toddy ladles, rummers and a glass, and toddy stirrers
and the obligatory link to our website, with all the toddy-related material:
Now – fasten yer breeks guid and tight, and keep yon Jack Frost awa’ frae yer taigeis !