It’s a sure sign of winter. When the last leaf falls from the tree, we naturally turn our sights inside to simmering soup, steaming stews and warm mugs of hot chocolate. We’re nesting, we’re warming our souls, bracing for the spine-chilling winter that lay ahead.

It was a trip to a Christmas Market where everyone was sipping on hot toddy’s and mulled wine that got me to thinking – as it gets cold outside, don’t just dust off the crock pot, turn up the heat on your favourite liquor bottles!

Master bartender, Frank Ryan of The Western Door steak house always says warm drinks in the winter tend to sooth our psyche. It’s all about survival. Working in a world of anything goes cocktails, he knows there are times when tradition, comfort and warmth suits our sipping needs and moods best.

The most famous warm cocktail of all is the hot toddy. It’s a mixture of sugar, lemon and whiskey warmed with boiling water. It was the best-known cure for anything that ailed you during the days of prohibition. Today we still make hot toddies but now they serve as a base for creativity. I’ve been known some to add cloves and others use brown sugar and bourbon for a caramel flavour.

Frank flexes his creative muscles in a warm drink he calls Ma’s Apple Pie. It’s brandy, amaretto and instead of boiling water, he uses warm apple cider. He pours this into a glass rimmed with cinnamon sugar and garnishes it with a dried apple ring. Yes, he recommends it at The Western Door steakhouse when the snow is flying outside because, “it keeps you warm, especially at the thought of going out in a storm.”

It’s hot toddy season and just like Frank, you too can reinvent the quintessential warm drink into dozens of different flavour combinations. All you have to do is replace the hot water with one of your favourite beverages like Earl Grey tea. Or how about hibiscus tea and tequila? Both are perfect for tea lovers. Use a spicy apple cider with lots of cinnamon and star anise for an Apple Cider Hot Toddy. Got a can of fruity raspberry lemonade concentrate left from the summer? Ok, then warm it up, add a teaspoon of honey that will turn extra yummy with delicious honey whisky.

The reincarnations of hot toddies are limited only by your imagination. For example, only good things can happen when you mix pumpkin butter and rum together. Add a bit of brown sugar and pumpkin pie spice and you’ve got a Pumpkin Butter Hot Toddy. This one should definitely be topped with whipped cream and a dusting of cinnamon!

Another hot toddy combines two of my favourite things, candy canes and Kahlua. Pull a candy cane from the Christmas tree, crush it and simmer up a Pink Peppermint Hot Toddy with Kahlua and vodka. Use milk for a creamier version and add a dash of peppermint syrup for a boost of festive flavour.

If you need to make hot toddies in bulk, thank goodness you dusted off the crockpot because instead of making dinner, it will keep your drinks warm for hours and fill your room with delicious aromas. Let your guests dip a ladle into the pot and help themselves throughout the evening. In a crockpot you have the added advantage of infusing flavours slowly, like ginger that will infuse a lemony hot toddy with spiciness. It’s the perfect antidote to chilly winter weather and some claim that ginger is nature’s antibiotic – a perfect drink to keep winter colds at bay.

Start it in the afternoon, serve it in the evening, a Cranberry, Sage and Black Peppercorn Hot Toddy is herbally, citrusy and the color of a glistening, ruby red jewel. It’s an aromatic mixture of cranberries, whole black peppercorns and sage leaves simmering in the crockpot with honey, a bottle of white wine and a cup of Benedictine – yum!

There are a few things you should keep in mind when using your slow cooker to make hot drinks. First, turn it to high to bring the liquids to a maximum temperature. Then turn it to low and let the flavours simmer away. Add the alcohol only at the end, a few minutes before serving.

You’ll love your crockpot hot toddies because they fill the air with the aroma of savoury spices. Remember that there is only one way to serve a hot toddy and that’s warm and strong.

Hot Toddy Classic

YOU’LL NEED
¼ cup whiskey
1 tablespoon honey (or more to your liking)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
½ cup boiling water
garnish with lemon slice, cinnamon stick and/or star anise

DIRECTIONS
Combine all ingredients in a warmed mug and stir to combine. Garnish and enjoy.

Crock Pot Hot Toddy Classic

YOU’LL NEED
6 cups apple cider or apple juice
¼ cup sugar
1 – 9 inch stick cinnamon
8 whole cloves
4 star anise
1 large orange, sliced
1 lemon, sliced
½ cup bourbon

DIRECTIONS
Add apple cider, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and star anise into a crock-pot, cover and cook on low-heat setting for about 2 hours or on high for one hour. Add orange and lemon slices. Cover and cook for 15 minutes more.

Turn cooker to low-heat setting, add the bourbon and serve.

By Lynn Orgyzlo