With cold and flu season fully upon us, it’s hard to go anywhere these days without hearing a cacophony of chest-rattling coughs and sinus-clearing sneezes. (Gesundheit, people.)
And while most under-the-weather folks turn to over-the-counter drugs, various vitamins, endless cups of tea, and steaming bowls of chicken soup to feel better, it wasn’t that long ago that a glass of rock and rye was considered an effective cure-all.
The old-timey concoction isn’t just a clever name. Anchored by a rye whiskey base (the rye), it is sweetened with a bit of crystalized rock-candy sugar (the rock) and fruit. (Sound familiar? It’s very similar to an Old Fashioned cocktail, which adds a few dashes of bitters and ice.)
Some people believe the origin of the elixir may date back to when bartenders offered rough rye whiskey with a bit of rock candy, which customers would add to the spirit until it was palatable enough to drink.
But though we may not know rock and rye’s exact origin, we do know that it was first sold as a medicine and not as a recreational drink. Many brands touted their restorative claims proudly on marketing material, including Lawrence and Martin’s Tolu, which billed its rock and rye as a cure for coughs, cold, consumption, and “all diseases of the throat and lungs.”
“In my boyhood days in the country this was a favorite cough and cold remedy,” wrote David Embury in the 1958 third edition of The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, “even with those who frowned on liquor as the devil’s broth.”
Using whiskey and whiskey-based drinks as a cure was actually a pretty standard practice in the 1800s. So much so that, according to a piece titled “Curing a Cold: The Shortest and Surest Way by Which it Can be Done” that ran in The New York Times on Feb. 11, 1896, “Every experienced physician knows that pure malt whiskey is nature’s great remedy for stimulating the vital forces and building up the health.”
The popularity of rock and rye lasted for decades. “Before, during, and after Prohibition, enough temperance advocates made allowances for booze-heavy tonics and bitters that their prevalence in ostensibly dry houses became a running joke,” wrote Matthew Rowley in his fascinating new book Lost Recipes of Prohibition: Notes from a Bootlegger’s Manual. “While a slug of plain whiskey would almost surely have been met with tightly pursed lips, who could argue that rock candy sugar and fruit wouldn’t be wholesome additions?”
There’s even a recipe for a cocktail version in The Savoy Cocktail Book, Harry Craddock’s legendary art deco masterpiece from 1930, which calls for rye whiskey or Canadian Club, a piece of rock candy and the juice of a lemon that “can be added if desired.”
But, like countless other cocktails and medicinal tonics that have come and gone, rock and rye slipped into mixological obscurity. Along with rye whiskey in general, it largely disappeared from liquor store shelves and bar menus.
Drinkers developed a taste for smoother whiskies and, ultimately, clear spirits like vodka. The sick turned to powerful decongestants and vaccines to deal with their ailments. The only drink a bartender might have prescribed to a sniffling, sneezing patron was a watery Hot Toddy.
Fortunately, two boutique spirits companies have recently introduced their own delicious spins on rock and rye. (Don’t worry about either being overly sweet: The sugar and the fruit work together to soften and round out the whiskey.)
Entrepreneur Rob Cooper, who created St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur (that ubiquitous craft cocktail bar ingredient) and later sold it to Bacardi, introduced Hochstadter’s Slow & Low Rock & Rye back in 2012.
He recently started selling a 100-proof version ($35) that is made with 8-year-old straight rye whiskey and flavored with raw honey, dried navel orange peels, and a “pinch of cane rock candy.” (It also contains bitters, which makes it essentially a bottled Old Fashioned.)
And in late 2014, the New York Distilling Company, based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, rolled out Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye ($25), which uses its own rye whiskey and is flavored with dried orange peels, cinnamon bark, bing cherries, and some rock candy. At a drinkable 65 proof, it works well as an aperitif when sipped on the rocks.
The cocktail version of rock and rye is also popping up. Jim Meehan’s acclaimed PDT Cocktail Book features a version from bartender Lydia Reissmueller called the Rack & Rye, which calls for Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve 6-Year-Old Rye, van Oosten Batavia Arrack, Demerara syrup, and both Angostura Bitters and Angostura Orange Bitters.
While doctors generally no longer believe in the ability of a stiff drink to fight colds and flus, I, for one, have not given up hope. After all, I’d rather have a shot of rock and rye than a flu shot any day.