Rock & Rye

I love rock and rye. I love it. I have memories of my great grandmother (a wrought iron Irishwoman from the cliffs of Donegal who spent her dotage describing her Floridian home as a golden harp with no strings “beautiful and bloody worthless”) slipping me some as a child when I had a cold. There was an eternal mason jar labeled “R&R” in the cabinets for a quick nip whenever the adults needed one or thought the children weren’t looking. For our part, the children learned to fake cold symptoms whenever it was just “Big Nana” in the house, as she would administer a tot as quickly as possible to avoid the disapproving clucks of her progeny.

(As a brief aside, due to this I was convinced that whenever people used the term “I could use a little R&R” they were talking about going out to drink until I was in my late 20s. I misused it dozens of times, but the sentiments are analogous enough that no one ever called me up on it.)

When I first saw Slow and Low on the shelves I was ecstatic. I was slightly disappointed in the result as too cloying, but I keep a bottle on the shelves at all times for a quick to go cocktail or coffee additive. I am not at all a fan of the Mr. Katz version, though I do enjoy the cherry notes, and the dark fruits are more reminiscent of the old recipes that grab me by the nostalgia.

I’m sure that Big Nana got the recipe from either a Florida or Massachusetts neighbor, as family from Ireland always treated it as a novelty when visiting. Unfortunately, my grandmother cannot find the recipe in her (meticulously organized and actually quite impressive) recipe card library, and no one living remembers anything about it other than its flavor. I’ve tried nearly half a dozen recipes from various online sources but nothing even comes close. The mix of sweet and citrus, stone fruit and punchiness are all wrong.

I am reaching out to see if anyone has any good sources for older, localized Rock and Rye recipes. I’ve found a few in the EUVS archives, but I don’t have much experience in researching old newspapers or local rags for such recipes. New England papers would be most likely source if one is to be found. I’m sure I’ll have to adjust (Big Nana was fond of and aggressively proud of Bushmill’s, I’m positive that she would have added at least some to her recipe, to fly the flag if for no other reason), but I am looking for a spice profile that comes closer.

2 Likes

I already like your great grandmother, although she may still be too generous.

I also appreciate your devotion to rock and rye, although I don’t yet share it. (The Slow & Low cans are darn cute, though.)

I did a cursory on-line newspaper search and found a gazillion advertisements for commercial bottlings in the way. (Seems you pay a 50% premium for the stuff with an actual hunk of crystalized sugar in it.) I would expect actual recipes for homemade rock and rye to appear in homemaker-oriented publications rather than newspapers, per se. Will be happy to see what we have in the library when I’m next there.

1 Like

My Irish grandma gave us something when we were sick that had whiskey, dried apricots, some weird dark colored candies. I always just thought it was very strange hot toddy. Much later I learned that the candies were horehound, and even later I learned that meant mint. But I didn’t put any of that together with rock & rye until I read your post. My mom, her daughter, used to make the drink with Wild Turkey, but left out the apricots. She has her mother’s diary, which I had been meaning to look through anyway. When this quarantine business is over, I will see if there’s a recipe in there. It’s a long shot – but I’ll let you know if I find anything.

1 Like

Thanks, that would be a great help! A lot of the recipes I’ve been able to find do reference horehound, and as a strange coincidence the small town I’m quarantining in has an outdoor market with local goods among which is a candy seller who has horehound candies.

1 Like

ooh, I’d try the candies from the market then! They might have that odd taste that you don’t get from fresh mint or beautiful crystalline rock candy. I dont know when your great grandma was making the drink you remember but my grandma was born in 1908. I’ll ask my mom what she recalls from her grandmother, who came from County Mayo in the 1880s. I know my own mom was so appalled at her mom’s use of Johnnie Walker red that she swapped it to Wild Turkey.

Rock and Rye evolved some from its origins, which I’ve detailed here: https://www.thedailybeast.com/rock-and-rye-a-study-in-bs . Initially, it was simply straight rye whiskey (1 gallon) and rock candy (5 pounds). No horehound, no citrus, no nothing. If you use a good Bonded rye (ironically I like Mr. Katz’s Ragtime Rye here) it’s quite tasty, but you have to like the flavor of rye whiskey.

2 Likes

Makes sense. As you say in your piece, so much bullshit in these origin stories, and certainly in the “health effects” of such folk remedies. And yet…at another level, we often find a distorted version of something in them. I’d not give my own kids rock & rye made with horehound candy in place of medicine vetted by the scientific method, but white mint is a vasodilator. Just as the incredibly high phenols that come from peat do have antiseptic properties. My grandmother was an alcoholic and I’m sure she was dropping candy into JW Red for reasons other than health. But there is enough whisper of the actual past, combined with folk medicine, in these tales that get passed on through the generations, to excite the cultural historian in me.

Thank you for the link! I had read that piece previously, but rereading it allowed me to renew a forgotten promise I made to myself on first perusal: to use the word “crackbrainery” at every opportunity.

I do like the Ragtime Rye, and have used Hochstadter’s own rye to make a less sweet copycat of their Slow and Low. Being a good little New York barman I tend to have a bottle or two of Rittenhouse and Old Overholt lying around, and have done a bit of experimenting with those (as well as with some flavored rock candies, though I am fond of the unflavored for this purpose). I have made what I consider to be a couple pretty damned good rock & ryes (even doling out 200ml bottles of them as stocking stuffers one year, to general praise and merriment).

But none have been Big Nana’s R&R. There was some (regrettably) indefinable element to her elixir that I hope to hunt down. She was a great believer in the wisdom of various and sundry home journals and advice columns, and her circle of friends held similar views. If her recipe was not some home secret now lost forever, then I would expect it to have originated in a clipping, either made by her or passed to her by one of her behatted spinster friends.

I am confident that I at least know the mix of whiskies, though not necessarily the ratios, and neither of them is actually a rye. Further proof to me that she was given the recipe, adjusted it to fit her liquor cabinet, and kept the name out of deference or simple enjoyment in the alliteration (she was fond of rolling her 'r’s when feeling haughty–nearly always–and I can’t imagine her renaming something that rolled off the tongue so forcefully).

My hope is that there is some secret ingredient championed by some home magazine from the 40s or 50s when they immigrated to the US. My grandmother doesn’t remember there being a bottle in their time in Massachusetts, so I have been trying to focus on southern ladies’ journals from the early to mid 50s. It was definitely in the house by the early 60s, as my mother has memories analogous to mine regarding colds and Big Nana’s (simply ‘Nana’ to her) remedy. She swears it was the same recipe as what we had when we were kids.

2 Likes