A Brief History of Hot Drinks

With the cooler seasons upon us, it is the perfect time to introduce warm cocktails to your menu. Read on as Allison Widdecombe shares the history of the hot drink along with some delicious recipes. 


As the trees lose their leaves and the blustery wind takes on a chill the light wanes, and we get our fireplaces and ski gear ready for the winter. It is natural when fall is upon us to want hot drinks. They give us a tinge of nostalgia and make us think of holidays past while they warm our bones in front of a flickering fire. So, settle down in front of that fire, and let me tell you a story of hot drinks. 

Mulled Wine

There was a time when a hot drink was one of the best and fastest ways to warm yourself and it all begins with mulled wine. Mulled wine is a hot drink that has its roots in Roman times and is generally credited to the era. It was printed in cookbooks by the 14th century, so it is an assuredly ancient concoction. By the 18th century mulled wine was a staple in England and across much of mainland Europe. It made questionable wine more palatable and was revered as a health tonic for those who drank it. It could be found at markets and stands and was a quintessential way to beat the winter chill. In its most simple form, it is warmed wine, spices, and citrus but many offshoots of this drink can be found, from the smoking bishop- a port-based hot drink popularized in The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens- to the Swedish Lutendrank- a warm spiced wine and milk concoction. Cognac was often added to mulled wine to fortify the drink and add some pep. 

Hot Toddy

Another exemplary and notorious warm cocktail is the hot toddy. Almost everyone is familiar with this drink; perhaps your grandma has suggested it when you were coming down with a cold, or maybe it’s just what you think of when you walk into a bar from a bone-chilling snowstorm. This drink like many other classic cocktails makes an appearance in Jerry Thomas’s Bartender’s Guide from 1862. Also like many other classics, this drink has more than one supposed origin. Some say the Toddy was created in India when it was controlled by the British, and that its name comes from the Hindi word “Taddy.” This means a beverage made from fermented palm sap. David Wondrich credits the drink to Scotland, though he notes in Imbibe that it was first found in print in the mid-18th century in a Boston publication. It was defined then as “a beverage made of alcoholic liquor with hot water sugar and spices.” No matter the origin, it was a very popular American drink by the early 18th century. This drink was and is often used as a health tonic for anything that ails you. Physicians in days past had been known to prescribe it for an array of illnesses. It is most often made with whiskey but can be made with any spirit and a wide range of variations can be found of this drink- from using honey, agave, or sugar as the sweetener, to the addition of lemon, orange wheels, a variety of spices and even herbal tea to the mix. 

Hot buttered rum is another drink present in Jerry Thomas’s staple bartending book. This drink is often credited to the colonial Americans. New England was extremely influential in the popularity of rum during that era and therefore it was a very common spirit in American libations at the time. The addition of butter to drinks was nothing new; butter had been added to beer and other drinks for centuries before. Henry VIII reportedly used buttered beer as a remedy for hoarseness. Like all the classics there are many iterations of this drink but the first records are simple. David Wondrich in Imbibe records the cocktail as containing sugar, rum, spices, a pat of butter, and hot water. He continues that the preference is a pot-stilled rum, but that any dark rum will do. However, the drink can be much more complex. Wayne Curtis, author of “And a Bottle of Rum” offers a decadent version that includes ice cream in the butter batter and suggests keeping it frozen until adding it to rum and hot water. While it is somewhat of an obscure historical drink, it had enough of a moment in history to have a holiday given to it. January 17th is hot buttered rum day. 


Tom & Jerry

And now for the king of all hot drinks- The Tom & Jerry. History has is that Jerry Thomas made erroneous claims that the drink was his creation, but it was in fact first published in a Massachusetts-based publication in the 1820s, 3 years before Thomas’s birth. The drinks we have spoken of until now are simple and variable recipes, but the Tom & Jerry has a specific and more complex base. The unique part of this drink that makes it so delicious is the "batter" that is whipped into the drink- a mixture of stiffened egg whites, yolks, spices, and rum. This mixture is whisked into a frothy batter and was traditionally made with water and brandy. You may also find a combination of brandy and rum as a base, and by the 20th century, the water was often replaced by hot milk, which is what you tend to see in bars today. 

So, if you come off the ski slopes cold and tired and you find yourself in a cozy tavern, have a hot toddy, try a hot buttered rum, or if they are serving Tom & Jerry’s give it a shot. Whichever hot drink you choose for the holidays, rest assured it will be rich in flavor and history and will help soothe and warm the chill in your bones. Cheers and happy holidays!