By AMBROSE CLANCY //
It was raining horizontally, with sleet, driven by a December gale. We could hear the sea pounding the concrete strand one street away as we ducked down an alley with the sharp smell of turf fires on the wind. No one was around, except the two village dogs crouched in a doorway, just their noses sticking out to the wind.
Soaked, shivering, we made it into the safe harbor of the pub from the wild County Clare afternoon.
The bartender stood before us sporting an evil or wry smile, depending on your mood, saying, “They say there’s rain in the forecast. What’ll ye have?”
In one voice we ordered Bushmills.
“Will that be hot or cold?” the barman, already a friend, asked.
“Hot? I’m not …”
“Hot whiskeys were born for days like this,” he said, and started crafting the drinks in front of us.
He poured a couple of shots of Irish apiece into glasses, half a spoon of sugar, three or four cloves, a slice of lemon, and boiling water on top from the tea kettle.
We were anxious for the first sip, but the barman held up one finger in admonishment.
“Now, don’t be greedy … give it a minute to let the cloves and lemon do their work.”
So, we waited. The scent of the pale gold brew steaming on the bar blossomed. He finally gave the go-ahead by pointing to our glasses. Soon we were comfortable observers of the filthy day outside the pub’s window, and not at its mercy.
Whiskey is first mentioned in reports from 10th century Ireland and Scotland, by monks. But Jim Murray, in his “A Taste of Irish Whiskey” (Prion Books 1997), notes that, on the origin of whiskey, “a single fact remains; nobody really knows.”
Winter in the Celtic countries makes you consider that the first batch that came off the still by the good friars had probably not cooled very long before there was a sip or two taken to toast the generosity of God.
“Hot toddy” is the generic name for hot drinks with spirits, and for a fuller perspective on the drink, no one is better prepared than one of Long Island’s most inventive drinkmeisters: Evan Bucholz, co-owner and mixologist at Brix & Rye in Greenport.
“A practice we use is to heat the ingredients in a kind of double boiler before combining with the water,” Bucholz says. “This way you warm the glass and also ensure the toddy will be hot.”
The basic toddy that Bucholz brings to life is strictly spirit, sweetener – honey, sugar or syrup – and hot water. “Traditionalists bristle at citrus being used in a toddy,” he notes (though not in County Clare), and so, at his bar, nose-in-the-air purists won’t go thirsty.
Bucholz makes them the classic: 1.5 ounces of dark spirit (Scotch, Irish whiskey, bourbon, rye, aged rum or aged brandy), 1.5 ounces of simple syrup (demerara syrup, honey or maple syrup) and 4 ounces of hot water.
“Maybe a couple strokes of cinnamon,” he adds.
I told him that in Ireland, hot whiskeys were recommended if you had a cold.
“You’ll feel a lot better,” Bucholz agrees, before pausing. “At least, until the following day.”
His recommendation for something to lift your spirits and clear your chest was a novelty to these ears.
“A gin toddy is especially nice when someone is congested and feeling under the weather,” he says, and reveals its secrets:
1.5 ounces London dry gin
1 ounce ginger syrup
3.75 ounces fresh lemon juic1e
1.5 ounces green chartreuse
Clove-studded orange peel
“The aromatics of the gin and chartreuse really help with congestion,” the master notes. “The drink also packs a punch because of the proof of chartreuse.”
The easiest hot drink to brighten a dreary, cold day is hard cider heated in a pan – to a simmer, never a boil – with a touch of lemon juice and just a hit of lemon bitters. Drink it from a mug or, for the more careful, a snifter.
Mulled wine is also simple, but not for everyone (spice packets are available in liquor and party stores). Heat the wine with the spices – again, without boiling – and you’re ready to party like a medieval courtier.
Don’t worry about getting too tipsy, though. As my friend, the gourmand Henry Powderly III, has noted, when speaking of spiked egg nog, you’ll throw up long before the alcohol can take effect.
Ambrose Clancy is an award-winning writer/editor and veteran Long Island journalist. He currently serves as the editor of The Shelter Island Reporter.