"Have you tried Rock and Rye?" The question was posed to me not by a bartender, but by my teetotaling mother-in-law. When she was a girl, she recalled, the rock candy-sweetened rye whiskey was a cure for the sniffles. "My mother would spoon it into hot tea," she said.
Intrigued, I called on New York distiller and spirits historian Allen Katz, who, I discovered, has been working on his own version. It's difficult to pinpoint the sweet, citrusy cordial's exact origin, he explained, but by most accounts it was popularized in America's early saloons, where bartenders added rock candy, or rock candy syrup, to smooth out the spicy bite of a young rye.
How did this barroom staple end up in the medicine cabinet? Apparently, around the turn of the 20th century, makers of Rock and Rye blurred the line between remedy and refreshment. Bottled versions made by Charles Jacquin et Cie (in production since 1884, the only pre-Prohibition survivor), Tolu, Arrow, Koch's, and Rocko-Ryo were often patented as "alcoholic medicinal preparations." This way, producers could skirt disapproval from the temperance movement while avoiding the higher taxes placed on liquor.
After Prohibition, bartenders resumed making their own. The best-known was Harry Craddock's, from the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, which simply called for dosing whiskey with rock candy and lemon. In recent years, barkeeps have even started adding it to cocktails. In San Francisco, Rye bar's version, made with citrus peels and cloves, spices up an old-fashioned. Star anise and horehound in the Rock and Rye at The Whistler in Chicago give the bar's hot toddy an herbal kick.
Now, even the bottled cordial is seeing an update. Mister Katz's Rock and Rye, made with rock candy, sour cherries, and a young rye whiskey from New York Distilling Company, is set for release in 2013. Hochstadter's Slow and Low, already on the market, infuses a 98-proof, six-year-old rye with citrus peels, rock candy, honey, and horehound for a spicy-sweet cordial. Spooned into tea or sipped straight, it's almost worth getting the sniffles for.