Lift the winter spirits

Martine Nouet argues that one of the advantages of bad weather is that you can drink strong spirits to keep out the cold
By Martine Nouet
Everybody fights the rigours of winter in their own manner. Modern conveniences have spoilt us with houses that are (too) well-heated. But think of the old times when peat or log fires were the only way to get some warmth in cold, damp houses.

There were days when the freezing cold necessitated additional fuel. A hot drink of a hefty spirit could help you feel better and cure all kinds of ills.

I remember my grandfather swearing by his lait de poule – a Norman version of egg nog – when he had a cold.

This cocktail of beaten yolks, milk and homemade calvados seemed to have a magical effect on his health, and he died aged 96.

Scotland also has a tradition of hot and alcoholic drinks which have generated fascinating legends and recipes.

Why not greet the cold evening with a toddy or an Atholl brose, classics among the classics; or brighten up a friendly afternoon tea with some reinvigorating warm drinks, rich enough to compete with solid food?

The toddy has a solid reputation as a cold cure in Scotland. My first encounter with this ‘medicine’ occurred on Islay.

It was a particularly bitter, cold April weekend. We had come with friends who were eager to learn more about the local spirit on an educational trip combining distillery tours, beach-walking and enough pub expeditions to keep us cheery and awake till late at night.

But we were not prepared for the harshness of a Hebridean spring and the rigours our destination held in store.

After spending half an hour turning malt in Bowmore’s draughty maltings, we were plunged into a sauna on entering the suffocating smoky kiln – enough to leave half the troops with a nasty cold.

So we ended up going to the Harbour Inn Bar for a restorative. My partner then began a long discussion with the waitress about toddy recipes, each claiming their own version as a genuine one.

While he insisted upon using boiling milk, she stuck to boiling water. Finally, he was brought the two versions, both generously topped up with a double dram of The Famous Grouse.

It’s impossible to say which recipe was the most efficient cure. But he did feel much better – and rather dizzy – after having swallowed the concoctions.

When we came back to The Harbour Inn the day after, a local said he had tried my partner’s recipe and had thoroughly enjoyed it, though he didn’t happen to have a cold!

Jean’s Auld Alliance toddy

Just follow the magic rule of three:

In a mug, mix one-third boiling milk with one-third heather honey, then add one-third well-matured single malt or characterful blended whisky. Stir well and drink the toddy as hot as possible.

Traditional toddy

A recipe by F. Marian McNeill

1. First half-fill a tumbler with hot water, and when the former has reached a comfortable temperature, pour out the water.
2. Put in three or four sugar lumps and pour a small cup of boiling water over them. When the sugar is dissolved, add a wineglassful of whisky and stir with a silver spoon; add another small cup or so of boiling water and then a second glass of whisky. Stir again, and sip the toddy with “slow and loving care”.

I wonder if a toddy can indicate social distinctions. Would a working-class toddy recipe drop the silver spoon and use less water but more whisky?

The interesting thing is that the fashionable drink of the Glaswegian upper classes in the 19th century was rum punch, solemnly if not ritually prepared with water, sugar, lime or lemon and Jamaican rum. Later on, a cold whisky punch recipe was developed.

In her wonderful book The Scots Cellar, first published in 1959, Orcadian F. Marian McNeill describes the traditions and lore of Scottish drinks.

The etymology of the word ‘toddy’ is still a mystery. Food and drink dictionaries postulate that it is a distortion of the Hindi word, tari, used to describe the sap or juice of a palm tree.

Once fermented, this sap became an alcoholic beverage that British sailors experimented with. Apart from the presence of alcohol, there is not much in common between the two drinks.

I find Marian McNeill’s explanation more convincing. She refers to an 18th-century poet, Allan Ramsay, who explains “‘Todian spring’ or ‘Tod’s well’, is reputed to supply Edinburgh with water.

When it is borne in mind that whisky derives its name from water, it is highly probable that Toddy in like manner was a facetious term for the pure element.”

Cocktail of legends

Marian MacNeill also quotes Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart: “Although whisky, in the Highlands at any rate, is still regarded as a spirit not to be adulterated or tampered with, I must admit there were and are recipes for its use as a medicine and also for the final glory of a feast, recipes far more ancient than the blended whisky we drink today. Of these best known are toddy and Athole Brose.”

The latter has its roots in legend, at a time when the Lords of the Isles dominated the west coast of Scotland.

It is 1475. Iain McDonald, defying the King of Scotland, has headed to Argyll and reached Perthshire. Murray, Earl of Atholl, decides to trap him rather than fight. Having heard that the Lord of the Isles likes to quench his thirst at a well in the neighbouring hills, he orders this well to be filled with a mixture of oatmeal, honey and whisky. Drowsy Macdonald and his army soon succumb to the intoxicating liquor and wake up prisoners.

Another version of Atholl’s brose exploits involve a young lad who, having got rid of a wild savage by intoxicating him with the beverage, asks for the hand in marriage of a young Atholl heiress, as a reward for his deed.

Charming stories, but with no serious basis. The ingredients of Atholl brose –whisky, oatmeal and honey – had been the daily fare of Scots for centuries, and the basis for the mixture was certainly in use long before the clan wars. The same combination with cream or crowdie (curd cheese) is called ‘cranachan’, a traditional Scottish pudding.

Atholl brose

Traditional recipe

225g (½ lb) oatmeal
300g (11oz) runny honey
575ml (1 pt) water
700ml (24oz) single malt

1. To prepare the oatmeal: toast lightly, put in a basin and mix with cold water until the consistency of a thick paste. Leave for 12 hours. Sieve, pressing with the back of a wooden spoon, leaving the oatmeal as dry as possible. Discard what is left in the sieve.
2. Mix the liquid with the honey and stir until well blended. Pour into a large bottle and fill up with whisky. Shake and cork well. Always shake before serving.

Some recipes include cream. Use 1½ teacups’ worth. It is usually beaten to a froth then stirred in with other ingredients. The Atholl brose must then be stored in the fridge and drunk quickly.

and more …

Here are a few tips for gourmet warm drinks to share with friends. A fun game is to try these recipes with different styles of whisky. You will be surprised by the various flavour combinations you obtain.

Gaelic coffee

A variation of Irish coffee. Pour good black coffee into a warmed glass, sweeten to your taste, add 15ml of single malt or whisky liqueur and 1tbsp of double cream, carefully poured so as to float on top of the coffee.

Whisky delight

Warm two different ice creams (vanilla and coffee for instance). Flavour one with a single malt and the other with a whisky liqueur.

Pour the darkest into the glass first, then add the second one. Add a straw and serve immediately. Yum!