A bit of rock (sugar), a lot of rye, some sliced citrus, and a bunch of spice
Throughout December I started several blog posts without finishing them. There were more distractions than usual this holiday season. I decided that even though several of the unfinished post are seasonal, I should finish and post a few. So, here’s one:For a number of years I ran a Steampunk-based roleplaying game. We got together about once a month for an afternoon game. And people brought food to share, it that it was also a potluck. My husband would frequently look for period recipes that could be adapted into a good potluck dish. In the course of this research he happened upon the origin of the liqueur known as Rock and Rye. It was invented in the 1800s by a guy who was trying to figure out how to turn a large quantity of bad-tasting bourbon into a sellable product.
This requires a short digression about bourbon, particularly bourbon in the U.S. during the 19th Century. Farmers had long been in the habit of turning a certain amount of their annual grain production into alcohol. Besides being a product other people were willing to pay for, barrels of whiskey and similar spirits could be stored safely for much longer than grain could. Usually. But every now and then something would go wrong (the storage building might have gotten to hot for a period of time, or could have been flooded, et cetera) and many barrels of the alcohol that should have aged into something quite delicious would be ruined.
So, this guy had come into possession of a quantity of such bourbon, and he tried various things to make it palatable. The process he settled upon was to mix rock candy (sugar), sliced up citrus, and some spices (most notably star anise) into the bourbon, let it infuse of a month or so, then strain out the liquid. The result was a sweet-tasting booze that carried a deceptive kick (because the citrus oil, sugar, and spices masked a lot of the alcohol taste). He patented it and began selling it for its supposed medicinal purposes. Many decades later, during Prohibition, because Rock and Rye was still often sold in drugstores as a medication, it was one of the few products containing alcohol one could buy in many states.
The point was that there was a recipe for how to make batches of it at home, rather than go to a liquor store and see if they carried the manufactured stuff. Pick of the cheapest kind of rot gut whiskey you could find (it didn’t necessarily need to be bourbon or a rye whiskey), slice up an orange and/or a lemon, put it in mason jars with rock candy, star anise, and so forth. Keep it in a dry cool place. Check on it and shake it every now and then to make sure the sugar dissolves, and eventually strain it out into bottles.We tried it. And I was quite surprised at how good it was. I started experimenting some more. Any time I picked up a new bourbon or rye (assuming it wasn’t too expensive), if I decided I didn’t really like it for making cocktails, it would go on a back shelf until I was ready to make a batch of rock and rye. It’s difficult to find plain rock candy now a days—it almost always has artificial colors and flavors added—but I can usually find Lump Candy at the local asian market, which works just fine. You can also find big bags of star anise, as well as cinnamon sticks, at much cheaper prices than the regular grocery store.
What would usually prompt me to make a batch is if I noticed that I had an orange or a lemon or lime in the fruit bowl that was getting iffy. The skin was hardening and you just know in another couple of days it would start to mold. So I’d grab a couple of mason jars, whatever cheap bourbon was on the back shelf, a package of rock candy, and start assembling. For spices I tend to put three or four stars of anise in each jar, two or three sticks of cinnamon, and about five whole cloves. Sometimes if I have vanilla bean on hand I’ll slice one of those and throw in, as well.
And sometimes there would be other fruit. There was a bunch of dried apricots and dried cherries left over after my husband made solstice cake one year (and the leftovers had been sitting in the pantry for a few months at that time), so they went into a batch of Rock and Rye.For the last several years I’ve made two or three bottles (one batch is usually two mason jars, which once you strain out the solid bits, turns into one bottle of finished products) in time from our annual Christmas party. I give each batch a name, based on what it tasted like when I sipped it, and I make labels for the bottles. I’ve been picking up small plastic shot glasses that are in the shape of the red plastic cups you see frat boys drinking beer out of in movies—I can usually find them in both red and green at Christmas time. And I set out cocktail umbrellas along with the shot glasses, just for fun.
Because it isn’t the same base booze each time, and because the citrus isn’t always the same, the batches do wind up tasting very different from each other.
Last year I ended up making three batches, plus I had a lot of the 2017 favorite, “Farewell to Ballard” leftover. The three batches I made last year wound up being labeled “You’ll Get a KICK Out of Me,” “Feel the Lemon Flow Through You,” and “As Sure as There’s an X in Christmas!” Two of those are song lyrics, and one is a riff on a line from Star Wars.
Because we’ve been caught in this slow-moving apocalypse for eleven months, I didn’t make any new batches of Rock and Rye. If we couldn’t get together for a party, there would be no one to share them with. And for whatever reason, I still had a lot leftovers from last year, any way.
I typed whatever, but I know a big part of the reason. It isn’t a beverage that you drink a lot of at a time. One of my friends misunderstood the first view years we did it, and was shocked after he had been sipping at a shot for a while at how the alcohol was hit him. When I describe letting the booze infuse with the citrus and sugar, that gives some people the impression that it is juice with some booze in it. It is not diluted. It’s still a shot of bourbon, it just has flavor added. No significant amount of the juice of the citrus winds up in the liquid. You get the citrus oils, not the juice.
It’s the kind of thing that you drink in small quantities. And sipping shots of flavored bourbon by myself isn’t that appealing. But I’ve invented a couple of drinks using the Rock and Rye as a base. One is a toddy: put a shot or two of Rock and Rye in a mug, top off the mug with hot water, add a slice of lemon and a cinnamon stick. It’s really good on a cold winter night. The other is a Rock and Rye and Soda: but some ice in a double rocks glass, add a shot or two of Rock and Rye, top off the glass with seltzer water. The latter is a bit better for warm weather.
I realized that I still had those bottles left over the week that we hosted the virtual version of the party. I have been trying to use them up so I can clean out the bottles and think about possibly making a batch for next Christmas. Because maybe we can have a party this year?