How to Make Hot Cocktails That Actually Taste Good

Avoid these three mistakes.

hot toddy
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

I feel like hot drinks kind of have a bad rap. For one, they’re pretty limited in their seasonality. You can have a margarita at pretty much any time, but a nice hot cup of anything would be pretty objectionable on, say, the beach under a sweltering sun. What’s more, there isn’t really the same wealth of recipes and riffs that we have for frosty drinks. 
Given our relatively limited experience with hot drinks, it can be easy to make mistakes when concocting them for yourselves, so I’m going to walk you through some common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Your drinks are too hot

Recipes usually call for boiling water, which is too hot. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, so making your drink scalding hot is a great way to ensure you get a face full of ethanol vapors. To avoid this, bring your water (or other liquid like apple cider) just up when it starts bubbling and then cut the heat before mixing. 

You’re using too much alcohol

This goes hand in hand with the above point. When a drink is super cold, the presence of alcohol is dialed back, so it’s not that overwhelming to be drinking a daiquiri where almost 50% of the drink is rum, but warm that up and it will taste overly strong and you’re not gonna have a great time. Instead, use roughly half the amount you would for a cold drink. Or, you can skip the full-proof spirits that usually clock in at 40% ABV, and go for lighter stuff like liqueurs or amaro.

There’s too much citrus

I’ve seen some hot toddy recipes call for as much as a whole ounce of lemon juice. This is an absurd amount. In my experience, the warmer citrus juice is, the more intense its acidity feels. My favorite way to incorporate citrus is via a wedge of lemon. This invites the drinker to squeeze a small amount of juice from the fruit, plus the aromatic oils from the peel get expressed over the drink as well.

In summary, all the traditional cocktail rules are broken when you crank the temperature up. And that’s a good thing! Flavors express themselves completely differently at higher temperatures allowing you to rediscover familiar ingredients from a new perspective.

hot toddy
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Really Basic Hot Toddy Recipe

Here is a primordial recipe that is so rudimentary it makes riffing super easy. Try it out with a few different base spirits to get a grasp on how temperature transforms each one. 


  • 1.5 ounces rye whiskey (or really anything aged like cognac, scotch, or rum)
  • 1 teaspoons sugar (you can use plain, Demerara, brown, or cane)
  • 5 ounces water, plus 5 more for warming the glass
  • Lemon wedge (you can push cloves into the skin of the wedge if you feel like it)

In a medium saucepan, bring water to just the point where it starts boiling and then remove from heat. Pour 5 oz. of hot water into your mug and let it sit for 30 seconds. Discard water from the mug and add sugar and whiskey. Stir briefly to combine. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

freaky friday
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Freaky Friday Recipe

Bitterness hits different at higher temperatures, and usually that’s not a great thing. When incorporating bitter ingredients, it’s vital to include ingredients that balance that out. You might think that sugar balances out bitter, but salt is way more effective. Don’t be shy with the pinch, you have a long way to go before the drink will be noticeably salty. 


  • 2 ounces Campari
  • 1 ounce Grade B Maple Syrup
  • 6 ounces water plus more to warm the glass
  • Pinch of sea salt

In a medium saucepan, bring water to just the point where it starts boiling and then remove from heat. Pour 5 ounces of hot water into your mug and let it sit for 30 seconds. Discard water from the mug and add maple syrup and Campari and hot water. Stir to combine and garnish with an orange wheel.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Ludlow & No Recipe

Spicy, herbal, and earthy flavors come alive when warmed. If you’re avoiding alcohol, try this extremely easy but satisfyingly complex riff on mulled cider. Proteau Ludlow Red, which I produce, is a zero-proof blend of black pepper, licorice, roasted dandelion root, rose, chamomile, blackberries, and fig vinegar.

5 ounces Proteau Ludlow Red
4.5 ounces apple cider

In a small saucepan, bring a cup of water to boil and pour water in a mug. In a separate saucepan, apple cider until just beginning to boil and remove from heat. Discard hot water from mug and pour hot cider into it. Add Ludlow Red and garnish with grated nutmeg.

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John deBary is a cocktail and bar expert with over a decade of experience working in award-winning New York City bars and restaurants. He is also the co-founder and president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grantmaking, and impact investing. John is also the creator of Proteau, a line of non-alcoholic drinks.