RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT: Hot toddies are no cure flu, but they score high in the comfort ratings
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QUESTION: What's more useless than a concert pianist wearing handcuffs? Answer: a wine writer with a heavy cold. You can't do any productive tasting when your head feels like a duffel bag full of bowling balls, and your nasal mucosa like hot sandpaper. My present condition is not a modest Vin de Pays of the cold world but a Grand Cru. It is the Chateau Latour 1982 of sniffles. It is making my life such hell that occasionally I even consider drinking herb tea.

I pull back from that desperate state by cruising the Web: in cyberspace, no one can hear you sneeze. While helping my spouse look for information about an antebellum house in Georgia called The Hermitage, I stumbled across the wine list of the renowned Gidleigh Park Hotel in Devon. Hermitage as in Rhone. Here it means (inter alia) Paul Jaboulet's Hermitage la Chapelle 1985, for the reasonable price of pounds 60 - reason enough to book dinner in celebration of recovery from your cold. The pages can be accessed in various ways, but you'll succeed just by doing a search for "gidleigh park"; and prepare for some splendidly sombre organ music.

Speaking of the Web, I've had further correspondence from Tom Cannavan, whose excellent website I recommended some weeks ago. Due to the typeface used in these pages, the site's address appeared to have a capital I instead of the number one at a crucial point. The address in full: http://www.gla.ac.uk/tbc1b. And that's a number one after "tbc", not a letter "i".

But what does a cold-ridden drinker do apart from fiddle with a mouse? Sip something hot. Medicinally the things are useless, of course, apart from temporarily soothing those wretched breathing tubes. Their purpose is to comfort, and at that they are pretty good. If they contain alcohol, as they usually do at a certain point in the day, they also give a warm glow which slightly alleviates the general feeling of ill-being.

Some people in my predicament would choose an Irish Coffee - good strong brew with a tot of Jamesons or Bushmills and a dollop of cream floated on top. I have never seen the point of the drink, even though a wit named Alex Levine points out that, "Only Irish coffee provides in a single glass all four essential food groups - alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fat." The quotation is found in Cocktail Hour (Robson Books, pounds 7.95).

If you agree with Mr Levine, or want to find out for yourself, use measurements as follows: 150ml coffee, 5ml sugar, 50ml whisky, 5 to 10ml double cream. Pour the hot coffee into a glass with a handle, dissolve the sugar in it, then add the hard stuff. Now hold a dessert spoon, rounded side up, over the glass. Pour the cream on to the spoon so it dribbles in gently and floats.

My own preference is for a cream-less drink along the lines of a toddy, which can be any drink containing spirits combined with hot water, sugar or spices. The name is etymologically interesting. It comes from Sanskrit by way of the Hindustani word "tari", meaning palm, and referred originally to a drink of fermented sap. How it came to acquire its meaning in English I don't know, but the earliest citation in the OED is a quatrain from Robert Burns.

Etymology? A fine thing, but I need liquid comfort. And I'll repair to the kitchen shortly for my own simple toddy recipe. Method: Boil around a quarter of a kettle while you make ready a pot of honey, half a lemon, and your bottle of grog. Leave the boiled H2O so that the lime-scale gunge can settle. Pour a few inches into a glass, add a teaspoonful of honey, squeeze in the lemon; you should strain the lemon unless you want roughage. Now add two measures of booze, stir quickly, and cup the glass in your hands. When it is cool enough to drink, drink it. Then brush your teeth and go to bed.

It won't make you well, but it will make you feel a hell of a lot better. Sniff.