Whether enticing a vote or soothing a sore throat, this drink has an interesting place in our nation's history.
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Credit: Photo: Hector Sanchez

What is it? A hot toddy, in its simplest form, is a mixture of liquor, hot water, honey or sugar, cinnamon, and, often times, lemon. There is no one definitive recipe for the hot toddy; some people, the purists, insist on using only hot water while others prefer a cider, black tea, or herbal tea, citing the healing properties of the herbs. Even the type of liquor–rum, brandy, whiskey, or bourbon–is a personal preference. Traditionally prepared to warm a body on a cold and blustery night, hot toddies developed a reputation for relieving the aches and pains that are associated with the common cold and flu. The steam from the warm liquid helps you breath better (particularly if you use an herbal tea), the honey and lemon soothes the throat, and the little nip or two of alcohol in the toddy helps one relax, fall asleep, and get a good night's rest. A word of caution: While a hot toddy can provide some temporaryrelief from a cold, it can't really cure or prevent illness. So go easy on the toddies, and be sure to seek out a doctor's advice when you're sick.

Where did it come from? Now, to the very interesting background on hot toddies: There are conflicting theories as to where the toddy was invented and by whom. Some believe it originated in Scotland in the 1700s, and others believe the drink was named after Dr. Robert Bentley Todd, an Irish physician who prescribed hot drinks of brandy, cinnamon, and sugar water to his patients. Another popular theory is that the toddy has its roots in the colonial era, when the British soldiers became fans of a drink they discovered while stationed on the Indian continent.

Regardless of its origin, the toddy, whether served hot or cool, eventually made its way across the ocean to the colonies where plantation owners created their own version of the drink using rum, spices, and hot water sweetened with sugar. Cooled and served in large quantities as a punch, this drink, or bumbo, was offered to guests at social events, business dealings, and even political rallies.

In colonial times, it was considered ungentlemanly–and even corrupt–to petition for votes through campaign speeches and advertisements. Instead, ambitious politicians engaged in what was called "swilling the planters with bumbo," hosting elaborate picnics and barbecues on Election Day, shaking hands, kissing babies, and keeping mugs filled with drink. The idea, of course, was that the candidate with the endless supply of bumbo would win. Robert J. Dinkin writes, in his book "Campaigning in America: A History of Election Practices,"

"…If a candidate ignored the custom of treating, he often found himself in great difficulty."

In other words, the candidate with the least amount of liquor lost the election.

How it gained popularity? Even George Washington learned a lesson about swilling with bumbo. In 1755, in his first run for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, young Washington was actually concerned with the number of taverns in town and how they were unduly "influencing" his soldiers, so he did little to win votes by swilling. He naturally lost the election but learned his lesson. When Washington ran again in 1758, he rolled out the booze: over 144 gallons of rum, punch, hard cider, and beer—nearly enough for a half-gallon per voter. Washington won that election, and the rest, they say, is history.

If you are attending an event this election season, pay respect to our founding fathers with one of these delightful rum punches. Tell your friends it's a version of bumbo, and impress them with your historical knowledge. If you happen to find yourself under the weather this cold and flu season, try this soothing Hot Bourbon-and-Orange Tea Toddy. Want to experiment with your own version of the Hot Toddy? Start with this basic recipe, and adjust the sweetness, amount and type of liquor, and spices to suit your taste:

Stir 1 tablespoon of honey into 1/2 cup of hot water until honey dissolves. Add 2 ounces of liquor* and pour into a heatproof mug or glass. Squeeze a strip of lemon peel over the drink, and then toss in the mug. Add a cinnamon stick for extra flavor and fragrance.
*Use your choice of bourbon, whiskey or rum, a throwback to colonial days of swilling.