Rock and Rye

Rock and Rye.jbmProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

This is an inauspicious beginning. I wasn’t there but take it on good authority that early rye whiskeys were not good. They had off flavors that needed to be disguised and that mask was typically a sweetener. If you wanted to drink a bad whiskey it is doubtful that you wanted to water it down with any other liquid so bartenders provided lumps of rock candy for that purpose.

The evolution of the sweetened rye continued from that simple combination. Rye was livened up with sugar and a flavoring of fruit and herbs. The concoction became a popular curative, there’s that theme again, with the addition of herbs that helped, or purported to help, with chest and head congestion. One of these, horehound, is a flowering plant that has been used for centuries for congestion and respiratory issues. Modern researchers have determined that aspects of the herb may also be beneficial for other ailments and even for anti-cancer benefits. Try that excuse next time you want a drink.

Rock and rye lasted into and through prohibition due to these claims as a medicinal aid. Once prohibition ended, though, its popularity faded. If I were to guess, the attention on creating quality spirits once they became legal again probably chased away the need to mask bad liquors with herbs, fruit and sweeteners.

Part of the increased popularity of cocktails has been a resurgence of unique rock and ryes made both in bars and at home. The basic recipe is to start the infusion with fresh fruit, fruit peels, dried fruit or some combination of those. Herbs are added and then the crafted liquor is finished with the rock candy that provided half of its name. The recipe that I used is from Gun and Garden magazine and is credited to John Maher of Rogue Gentlemen bar in Richmond:

1 750 milliliter bottle of rye (they recommend Reservoir but there’s no way I am spending that much on whiskey and then doing some home flavoring)
Peel of half an orange
Peel of one lemon
10 dried cherries (I went tart here for a hoped for contrast)
½ cinnamon stick
1 clove
1 star anise
1 tsp horehound (had to use horehound candies since I couldn’t find the straight herb)
1 six inch piece string of rock candy soaked in Cheerwine (a regional black cherry soda) syrup (12 ounces of soda simmered until it is reduced to at least half that volume).

Combine the first 5 items in a glass container and set aside for 3 days. Add the rest of the items on the list and infuse for another day. Strain the mix and put back into the original rye bottle. That last part is not on their recipe but it made sense to me. Plus I had to try a little since the Cheerwine syrup added a little extra liquid. I added a few more dried cherries into the bottle because I had read somewhere that they do that in bars to identify their different mixes.

My proposal included the suggestion that we try this on the rocks and in a cocktail. The base rock and rye was very good served with ice and some Angostura bitters. I was extra careful not to add too much Cheerwine syrup when I did the infusion since I had used horehound candies and didn’t want it to be too sweet. The bitters also helped with that. Between the soda and the dried cherries it had a nice fruit flavor that went well with the rye. The cocktail was a simple mix of ginger ale and rock and rye. Oddly, the more basic ginger ale was better than the spicier versions as a mixer.

Here’s David’s Review:

DBMTo start, two confessions:

First, my Rock and Rye didn’t steep the proper number of days. Even though Jonathan and I have had this concoction in mind for a while and I’d gone to some trouble to obtain Cheerwine, I didn’t consult the recipe until Friday morning, which meant my wife quickly combining of the ingredients, my shaking it all weekend to compensate for brevity (every time I passed the jar), and delaying consumption until the last possible moment Sunday evening.

Second, I couldn’t find the horehound the recipe called for, even at my super-fancy spice store. They were sure the recipe meant horehound candy, but that didn’t make sense to me because the ingredient is measured in teaspoons. No matter, I couldn’t find the candy either. Asking about it did elicit some interesting and amusing expressions, however.

So here’s what I think of my admittedly imperfect version: it’s strong. I guess I missed the part where Jonathan suggested using it with a mixer. You need to know, when you drink this stuff, you’re essentially drinking some citrusy and spicy rye. Some of you may say, “Great!” but my rock candy hardly sweetened it. If you’re as unused as I am to drinking spirits straight, you will need to tell yourself to slow down.

And, to me, it tastes mostly like rye. Certainly the lemon and orange are there, but they come across mostly as a bitter finish, intruding on the rye only in the last taste. If I were steeping this mixture again, I might put the anise and other spices in earlier, as, in my version at least, they were so subtle as to be barely recognizable. The cherry didn’t stand a chance at all.

I read in one account online that the Rock and Rye available in bars was particularly appealing to an overindulgent customer who chose it because “It has fruit in it.” His rationalization makes perfect sense to me, which is perhaps why I’ll look for ways to mix this stuff into other cocktails rather than drinking it straight.

On a side note, some weeks ago, during a visit to my friendly neighborhood not-so-upscale liquor store, I spotted a bottle of liqueur labeled Rock N’ Rye, so I bought some, for comparison’s sake. It’s far sweeter—you’d have to pour all of the Cheerwine syrup into this iteration to get even close—and there must be some other stuff in the commercial version too. The store-bought isn’t as citrusy or spicy. As Jonathan always says, there’s no substitute for fresh (and actual) ingredients, and, in comparison, the liqueur just tastes like sweetened rye.

That said, I may pour some Cheerwine syrup into my bottle (hey, what else am I going to do with Cheerwine syrup?) and try my Rock and Rye in combination with ginger ale or soda. The idea (if not-so-much the reality) of both versions appeals to me, and I haven’t given up on my homemade libation.

David’s Take: Do you like rye and the peels of lemons and oranges? Ask that question before you invest your time and energy.

Jonathan’s take: May have to make a Thanksgiving version this week with orange peel, dried cranberries, nutmeg and allspice.

Next Time (Proposed By: David):

I sometimes think of my ingredients as athletes sitting on the bench waiting for the chance to get into the game. Next time, I’m calling in Dark Rum, Kahlua, and (my sister-in-law will likely hate me) eggs. It just seems the time to return to an egg cocktail, so I’m suggesting the Almeria Cocktail.

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Melaza Punch

Melaza.dbmProposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Maybe you know molasses, but, if you are like me (before this experiment), you only experience it as an ingredient in cookies or gingerbread or even baked beans. Turns out, molasses (or “treacle” in British) comes from sugar cane or beets (no surprise there) boiled down once (cane syrup), twice (light molasses) or thrice (blackstrap molasses). To me, molasses has a smoky, vaguely sulfurous taste… though it has no smoke or sulfur in it (except as a preservative). Molasses reminds me of the colder months because its sweetness isn’t quite so sweet, and the syrup is as dense and slow-moving as fall and winter.

Which led me to this recipe. We’ve tried fall drinks using maple syrup before and lately every upscale restaurant I visit features a cocktail sweetened with it. “What about molasses,” I thought, “aren’t there any molasses cocktails?”

Silly question. Of course… there are a number. I chose Melaza Punch from a list of molasses drinks because it seemed the one that tests the assumptions I make the flavors of fall. The syrup fits, but the spirit—tequila—and the mixers—pineapple and orange juice—really don’t. I suppose you could see this libation as liquid pineapple upside down cake, but I think of a “punch” as a summer thing.

Molasses is a strong taste, its thickness makes it difficult to mix, and, speaking in party terms, these ingredients only seem to have the bartender in common. They barely know each other. I knew I was taking a chance and risking returning to my early reputation as the crazy brother on this blog (though, let the record show, I never proposed a pumpkin butter cocktail). Still, why are we here if not to experiment or, perhaps more accurately, serve as guinea pigs?

Here’s the recipe from Kathy Casey:

  • 1.5 oz Milagro Añejo Tequila
  • .75 oz Fresh pineapple juice
  • 1 oz Fresh orange juice
  • .25 oz Light molasses
  • Garnish: Freshly grated cinnamon
  • Glass: Rocks

Add all the ingredients to a shaker. Stir, and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with freshly grated cinnamon.

Incidentally, besides meaning molasses in Spanish, “melaza,” according to Urban Dictionary,  is a word Puerto Ricans use to describe something awesome, good, or excellent. Let’s see if Jonathan thinks the name fits…

Here’s Jonathan’s review:

melaza.jbmThis could be a research project, but I am way too lazy to do that for a blog. That research would be to determine how many times I have had to apologize for some aspect of a cocktail including its preparation and service. Simply put though, I need to do that for this punch.

We are back in tailgate season and I planned to serve this drink as part of a pre-game spread. That was accomplished, but, since I had to prepare and pack in advance, I took a shortcut. There was an orange juice carton in the fridge and pineapple chunks canned in their own juice so I used those non-squeezed options to save some time and trouble. I also added sorghum syrup as a substitute for molasses but that was on purpose. My only excuse was that it made an easy mixer that I could bottle, shake up to mix, and add to the tequila. In my defense too – have you ever tried to find fresh squeezed pineapple juice or tried to make it yourself?

A number of people tried the drink at the tailgate gathering, and they all found it too sweet. There is no doubt that, had I scanned the ingredients on the carton and can, I would have found added sugar. Combined with the sorghum, it was too much for the complexity and subtle notes that the anejo tequila provided. I knew that, knew I had served a bad recipe, and knew I would have to try again.

I made a second version later in the week. First I used my trusty hand juicer for the orange juice, which is so easy that I have even resorted to doing that when we have run out of store bought juice. Then I cut up a fresh pineapple, pulverized the core and some slices and let that slowly seep through a strainer. If you haven’t tried that, I would suggest you do it to understand why the home cocktailian would cut corners. Finally I mixed the drink using those juices and the sorghum syrup. It was incredible. The orange and pineapple juices were not too sweet and much lighter in consistency. The sorghum even added flavors that went beyond its sweetness that had been lost in the previous version. The star though was the tequila, as it was intended to be, with all its flavors on full display against the background of the fruit and syrup.

So here goes the apology. Lebo, Trevor, Medman, Seed, Mrs. Seed and others: I am so sorry that I served you an inferior cocktail. I wish you had been there to enjoy the real version with me, especially after juicing that damn pineapple, but you have to take my word for it that it was great. If you don’t want to do that, drop by because I still have tequila and I am sure I can scare up a pineapple and oranges.

Jonathan’s take: We say it over and over – use real ingredients even if it is a pain in the ass.

David’s Take: Wish I could say I liked it, but the molasses seemed dissonant to me, and, the most telling truth, I didn’t want another.

Next cocktail (Proposed By: Jonathan):

There are any number of pre-sweetened whiskeys. Southern Comfort has been around for a long time and now there are honey, honey/cinnamon and all sorts of other whiskeys that are all altered for those who don’t enjoy the hard stuff straight. They are technically liqueurs, at least as I understand the definition, and another of the classics is rock and rye. Garden & Gun magazine tells me that with the cocktail resurgence there has been an increase in bars that make that own version. That is what we are going to do. After that, it is up to each of us if we want to use it in cocktail, see what it is like on ice, or do both.