Although most doctors today would never prescribe it, certain spirits were relied on for centuries to help address common cold symptoms, and there is in fact some truth that alcohol can offer benefits to those suffering wintertime coughs and congestion.
Aside from the obvious benefits of mood improvement, increased body warmth, and ease of falling asleep that typically come with responsible drinking, alcohol can help by dilating blood vessels, which aids mucous membranes in dealing with infection. It’s not that the alcohol “combats the virus” per se, but rather can offer your body some help in getting the job done.
Hot toddies are a popular go-to for many; it’s believed that warm steam coming off of hot liquid helps to clear nasal and throat passageways, just like chicken soup. A toddy technically consists of a spirit base, hot water, a form of sweetener, and spices, often incorporating whiskey or rum, honey, and lemon. The vitamin C in lemon and the throat-soothing effects of honey have been relied on for ages to relieve sore throat, congestion, stuffy nose, and other cold symptoms, and the alcohol provides a warm, soothing kick.
The origins of the toddy are a bit mysterious, especially since many countries have their own variations. The Manual states that the name “toddy” goes back to the British colonial era: a coopting of the Hindi word tārī , a drink made from fermented sap from the toddy palm that became very popular among British ex-pats.
The version of the toddy most often savored in America and made with whiskey is Scottish, of course; it was initially touted as a cold cure, but it was so delicious that it became a popular winter go-to even among the robust of health. One popular legend says that the name of the Scottish toddy developed because it used water from Tod’s Well in Edinburgh. When the recipe crossed the Atlantic to America back during the time period of the Revolutionary War, we made it our own by using homemade brandy or rum coming in from the Caribbean–basically, what was available at the time.
A toddy must be made with hot water in order to be considered a toddy, and ideally the mug it is to be poured into should first be rinsed with hot water to warm it up. The water dilution brings out the flavor of the spirit chosen, which could be just about anything. The final key component is the sweetener, which again could be selected from a wide variety of choices: honey, maple syrup, sugar, or more exotic options. Flavored liqueurs like hot apple brandy are also excellent sweeteners.
Not one to be left out, beer is purported to have some cold-ameliorating effects of its own. A 2012 Japanese study isolated a chemical in hops, humulone, that helps to curb the respiratory syncytial virus, which causes similar symptoms to colds and flus. Unfortunately, the ingredient is only significantly effective if the individual has consumed 30 12-ounce cans of beer–a very unwise strategy that we’re confident will not help you to “get well soon.” So it’s not a great cold remedy at this point in time. Consumed in moderate amounts, however, beer can have other health benefits such as increasing bone density, making hair and skin shinier, and reducing the risk of forms of dementia like Alzheimer’s, as well as heart disease.
While we’re discussing moderation, the common advice given to “drink plenty of fluids” changes when the fluid in question is alcohol. Like coffee and other diuretics, alcohol causes kidneys to release fluid faster than usual, which leads to dehydration and certainly does not help recovery. To prevent dehydration, flu cocktail enjoyers should make sure to simultaneously drink plenty of water or electrolyte beverages.
Alcohol can also mix badly with certain over-the-counter drugs or prescription medications and cause negative health effects, so you should always use caution before combining. When in doubt, check with your doctor!
Naturally, we recommend anyone with a cold to stay home instead of going out to bars and sharing their illness with the world, but the good thing about toddies and other cold-remedy drinks is that most are so tasty that you’ll enjoy them even when you’re not sick, and it’s certainly worth incorporating one or two variations onto a menu during winter months. Below are some recipe ideas to get you started. Stay well!
I was first introduced to the “Hot Whiskey” on a rainy, cold day in a little seaside pub in Ireland, after a long soaking wet bike ride. The bartender suggested that this would cure what ails me before I even knew to ask for it—and now it’s my go-to on a sniffly day. The sweetness of the Jameson balances the malty flavors of a good Irish Breakfast Tea. Of course, you can make it with just about any black breakfast tea and any whiskey—this combo just feels a bit nostalgic to me. Sláinte!
I’ll use any excuse to whip up a tiki drink and being sick is definitely not an exception to the rule. The Captain’s Grog that I sourced from the great tiki cocktail book Smuggler’s Cove by Martin Cate is a great candidate. It features a couple types of citrus, almond/vanilla extract and maple syrup (that’s good for you, right?). Plus, it’s got a split base with three ¾ oz pours of different rums! The escapist nature of tiki is perfect for forgetting a cold and taking you a little closer to paradise.