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Lemon with cloves studded in it

Hot whiskies (and Irish coffees) feature quite prominently in the first two Moss Reid novels, and it’s not just the PI character who is drinking them either.

In Ireland we have a love affair – and a clove affair? – with the hot whiskey. Its pale amber glow and scented steam conjure up the smell of Christmas, and any good Irish pub will make you one. At first glance the recipe seems simple enough…

  1. Put kettle on
  2. Stick about eight cloves into a slice of lemon
  3. Pour boiling water into a glass
  4. Add a teaspoon of sugar, the lemon slice and a slug of whiskey according to taste

OK, maybe not quite that simple. Making it the wrong way is, well, criminal.

The real rules for making a hot whiskey

Let’s start with the whiskey itself. Whiskey with an “e” (Irish), or whisky without an “e” (as in Scotch)?

Whiskey and whisky are worlds apart. Generally speaking, Scotch whisky is distilled twice and peat is used in the malting process, thus giving it those smoky, earthy overtones. Most Irish whiskey is distilled thrice, giving a smoother finish and more refined taste.

That’s generally speaking. To complicate matters there are peat-based Irish whiskies too, such as Connemara Peated Irish Malt. You could use them for a hot whiskey, or a single malt Scotch such as a Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie. It’s totally up to you – though you might find the peatiness “too medicinal”.

The characters in my books are sensible types: they stick to regular Irish whiskey. A Paddy or Powers, a Jameson or a Bushmills perhaps – but the regular sort rather than an expensive collectible such as a Bushmills 1608 anniversary edition.

Next, the lemon. Unwaxed if possible. I prefer a thick wedge to a delicate thin circular slice. The latter is quite common and looks neat and “cheffy” but it can be too scrawny; the cloves tend to fall out and there isn’t enough of a lemon hit.

Now the all-important cloves. Stud each wedge with about four or five cloves. Push them well in so that they won’t escape, and remove any lemon pips that are about to make a dash for freedom.

It is also common to stud the cloves into the flesh of the lemon, but – and this is just me again – they do tend to fall out.

As for the sugar, plain white is OK but brown can add a distinctive taste.

The right glass is critical. You’ll often see thin wine glasses being used in an Irish pub, perhaps with a paper napkin wrapped around the neck. A bit mad. You’re better off with a small thicker mug-like glass (a half-pint or less) with a handle on it. Far easier to handle, much less chance that the boiling water will shatter the glass.

You can preheat the glass to help the hot whiskey stay warm for longer: hold it over the kettle’s steam, or half fill it with near boiling water and swill it out after 20 seconds.

Some barpersons will leave a teaspoon in the glass. A good idea: the spoon will absorb some of the heat and stop the glass from cracking; it will also bring the temperature down slightly to a reasonable level.

Another trick in some pubs is to wet the top eighth of an inch of the glass and dip it in white sugar to encrust the rim. This is pretty, but pretty silly.

The order of assembly is important:

  • Add the water and sugar to the glass first, to dissolve
  • Add the whiskey last, to taste – as the temperature falls, this also means that less alcohol will be burnt off

Your drink suitably assembled, it is now time to retire with it to a good open fire.

A hot whiskey is said to be a great “tincture” to warm you up nicely on a cold winter’s day, and a perfect hot toddy to sooth a sore throat. It’s not a cure-all for colds by any means, but comforting all the same if you’re coming down with one. Hence in  nutritional charts of Irish food groups it is sometimes classified as “medicinal”.

(If you’ve a really bad cold or the flu – as Moss Reid does in the novel Black Marigolds – it might be better to think non-alcoholic. As in hot orange juice instead of using a dehydrating whiskey.

Other variations: add a sprig of mint if you have it, a star anise, a piece of cinnamon stick, and sweeten with a small dollop of good honey instead of sugar

Finally, here’s how it’s made in Dublin’s smallest pub, the Dawson Lounge…