Today at The Drunkard’s Almanac we’re mixing the Hot Gin Toddy to honor a February 2nd tradition: Groundhog Day. February 2, 1887 was the first day a rodent meteorologist went to work at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It remains an annual tradition despite sketchy work on the part of Punxsutawney Phil.
February is also Black History Month and that’s important when it comes to the drink. Today we’re going with a specialty of Cato Alexander, one of America’s first black bartenders and likely the first with his own tavern.
The roots of Groundhog Day come from the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas, when clergy would distribute candles for winter. Some early Christians believed that a sunny Candlemas meant another 40 days of cold and snow.
Germans went one step further and appointed the hedgehog as a way to determine if the day was sunny. If the hedgehog spotted its own shadow the day was deemed to be sunny. German settlers in Pennsylvania were short on hedgehogs so they switched to the plentiful groundhogs in the area.
The groundhog itself is a big ground squirrel. They’re also called woodchucks or our favorite, whistle pigs, due to their habit of whistling when frightened. They hibernate in burrows during the winter, and after the long rest males leave the burrow in February to look for a mate. That February jaunt is more the result of some serious morning wood than to check the weather, and they soon return to the burrow until March.
In 1887 a newspaper editor from Punxsutawney declared that Phil, the Punxsutawney groundhog, was America’s only true weather forecasting rodent. There’s been a lineage of Phils, but he has competition from Staten Island Chuck, Milltown Mel, Buckeye Chuck, and Shubencadie Sam in Canada
We don’t know about the others, but Punxsutawney Phil is not so good at his job. So far he sees his shadow too often. His forecasts of 103 long winters and 17 early springs turn out to be lower accuracy than would be expected by random chance.
Before we get to the Hot Gin Toddy we need to discuss one of its early proponents, Cato Alexander. He was born as a slave in 1780 and we rely on David Wondrich’s The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails as the best source of information. Some believe Cato was born in South Carolina, others say New York. Either way, he was raised in the world of inns and taverns and when young waited on George Washington when the president lived in New York. He gained freedom in 1799 when New York passed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery and continued working in inns. He was known as an outstanding chef and amassed enough money to open his own business.
Around 1811 Alexander leased a two-story house and some land in what would now be Midtown East in Manhattan. His business, Cato’s Tavern, flourished for some 35 years and was an integral part of the city’s social life. In 1835 one newspaper wrote “Not to know Cato’s is not to know the world.”
Cato was even more celebrated as a bartender than as a chef. He had real respect when very few African Americans did. He was not only known for the punches that were common at the time but also for his dexterity with the newly emerging cocktail concept.
Cato’s Tavern came to an unfortunate end in the mid-1840s. He had loaned money to some number of customers and met financial ruin when too many didn’t pay him back. He did a stint as a farmer out on Long Island and returned to the city in 1852 to open an oyster house on Broadway. That business only lasted a year and he died in poverty in 1858.
The Hot Gin Toddy
The Hot Gin Toddy is Drink of the Day today for several reasons. First, there is no worthwhile groundhog-inspired cocktail. There is a Pennsylvania Dutch Manhattan, but it calls for a very obscure ingredient. Second, the Hot Gin Toddy was one of the drinks Cato Alexander was famous for. Third, his name was Cato and after our discussion of The Green Hornet and Stinger cocktail we like to highlight another Cato. Fourth, the Hot Gin Toddy recipe is dead simple, a variation on a classic sour (spirit, sweetener, citrus). Finally, since Punxsutawney Phil almost always forecasts a long winter you might need something to warm you up.
When people think of a hot toddy they generally turn to whiskey. The concept was first printed in England in 1741 and by 1750 it was popular in the colonies. Most people used whiskey, but the Hot Gin Toddy was a drink consumed avidly at Cato’s Tavern. It’s basically a warmed up sour (spirit-citrus-sweetener) like the Django Reinhardt.
Hot Gin Toddy
- Snifter or mug
- 1½ oz Gin
- ¾ oz Fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp Sugar
- 2 oz Hot water
- Garnish: Cinnamon stick
- Add gin, lemon juice and sugar to snifter or appropriate mug.
- Add hot water and stir to dissolve sugar.
- Garnish with cinnamon stick.