Getting Steamed: The Chaser heats up with homemade hot toddies (with some professional help)

As someone who frequently bemoans the prices of craft cocktails in Chicago, I decided to go DIY and mix my own drink last night. Little did I know, I was in for a sticker-shocking awakening. My mission? It was 16 degrees out, so there was only one choice: a hot toddy…

Ingredients for a homemade Hot Ditka
How to drop $45 fast: the ingredients for my homemade Hot Ditka
 

As someone who frequently bemoans the prices of craft cocktails in Chicago, I decided to go DIY and mix my own drink last night. Little did I know, I was in for a sticker-shocking awakening.

My mission? It was 16 degrees out, so there was only one choice: a hot toddy.

I’m curious to know what you envision, readers, when you hear the name “hot toddy.” I had always thought it was some combination of bourbon, apple cider, and cinnamon—my go-to recipe for years, including one particularly magnanimous Halloween, when I made a vat to serve parents of trick-or-treaters who visited my old building in Old Town. The pot was dry after 20 minutes, and a near-riot over the shortage sent me scrambling to shut down my illegal juice stand.

Some Internet research on the topic of toddies turned up all sorts of definitions, but it seems the term can apply to any hot mixed drink, preferably with alcohol. So, in the spirit of treating myself to something more celebratory than the lemon/water/whiskey/honey concoctions I kept running into online, I asked three Chicago mixologists for their recipes.

Apple juice vs. apple cider
Juice versus cider: Cheap juice prevails!

The first response came from Michael Churchward, general manager of the River West gastro-lounge The Red Canary, who sent along instructions for his Hot Ditka ($10):

“In a tall coffee glass, add ¾ oz Zaya Rum and ¾ oz Laird’s Applejack. Top with hot apple cider. Stir ingredients with a cinnamon stick, then leave the stick in the drink.”

Easy, I thought, zipping up my coat for a trip to Binny’s in Lake View. There, after squinting at every bottle in the rum section, I got my first shock of the night: Bottles of Zaya were going for $37.99.

I flagged down a guy in a Binny’s shirt. “Excuse me; do you know about rum?” I asked. “Is there something I could use along the lines of Zaya, but cheaper?” He pointed me toward a $10.99 (on sale) bottle of Bacardi Select, comparable to Zaya because it’s dark and not spiced. Then he led me a few aisles over to Laird’s Applejack, $19.99.

With this initial $35 investment out of the way, I breezed past Whole Foods and proceeded to Jewel, determined to save on cider and cinnamon. Right. After finding only one suspiciously generic brand identified as “cider,” I compared its ingredients to the bottles labeled simply “apple juice.” Exactly the same. With a jug of Mott’s and a tiny jar of cinnamon sticks in hand, I swiped the bar codes myself at the You-Scan Express lane, where a robot woman announced the price of the cinnamon sticks as “Nine. Forty-nine.” My jaw dropped. “Excusez-moi?” I muttered, huffily retrieving my receipt while fielding stares from nearby shoppers.

The homemade Hot Ditka
The Hot Ditka, only lacking its finishing touch: an overpriced cinnamon stick

Back home, I arranged the ingredients on my desk for a photo, mixed up my $45 Hot Ditka in a festive 2003 Kentucky Derby commemorative glass (there are no “tall coffee glasses” in my cabinets), and carried the drink to the couch, wondering all the while if cinnamon sticks are reusable. Just as I was downloading Usher’s “Hot Tottie (featuring Jay-Z)” from iTunes, my friend Jeff called. He was drinking wine in his Wall Street apartment, and I was sipping steamy, appley, pricey deliciousness in Lincoln Square. For an hour and 20 minutes I coached my friend on the utter insanity of living in New York (“I mean, Jeff, I want you to do whatever you want to do, but isn’t it a bit much? Don’t forget you have a condo and real friends here in Chicago”), and he coached me on overcoming my people-pleasing ways (“You have to be more like a New York bitch sometimes. Make your own rules and tell people exactly what you want”). It was all very cozy and a little woozy.

For you home mixologists, here’s another recipe, an eye-poppingly advanced version courtesy of Craig Schoettler, who soon will be whipping up the country’s most talked-about cocktails at Grant Achatz’s Fulton Market molecular lounge, Aviary, when it opens early next year.

“Our cider cocktail requires a vacuum pot. The infusion chamber is filled with cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, star anise, whole nutmeg, allspice, fresh ginger, orange zest, lemon wheel, fresh sage, and fresh thyme. Our base liquid is Laird’s bonded apple brandy, Carpano Antica, Pommeau de Normandie, Demerara syrup, salt, and water. The flame is lit, and once all of the liquid is pushed to the top, it steeps for two and a half minutes.”

Infusion:
15 g whole cinnamon stick
2.5 g whole cloves
1.25 g star anise
2 g whole nutmeg, halved
1.25 g allspice
20 g fresh ginger, halved
Zest of 1 orange, in one continuous piece
Zest of 1 lemon, in one continuous piece
3 lemon wheels, 1/8-inch thick
25 g sage
10 g thyme 

Base Cocktail:
50 g Laird’s bonded apple brandy
15 g Carpano Antica
15 g Pommeau de Normandie
20 g Demerara syrup
2 g salt
200 g water

Sounds tempting, but I think it’s best for The Chaser not to try this one at home (imagine the bill!). Instead, I’ll report back once Aviary opens.

And a final entry from one of my favorite fireplaces in Chicago, The Bar at The Peninsula. Bartender Aaron Johnson shares his simple, classic recipe for a Whiskey Skin ($12 at the bar), explaining that any drink with the word “skin” in its name refers to a mix of lemon, sugar, and hot water:

“In a hot-drink glass, add one sugar cube, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, a shot of Bowmore cask-strength whiskey, and 4 oz boiling hot water. Cover and let steep for a couple of minutes, then drink when it’s cool enough.”

The Chaser hears this drink is often delivered, minus the alcohol, to hotel guests who have colds. But even under the weather, I’d prefer it with the whiskey. In fact, I think I feel a sniffle coming on.

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