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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