Rock & Rye

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At Finger Lakes Distilling, we find that many of our whiskey tasters, whose introduction to whiskey has been Jack Daniels or Jamesons, usually have a limited knowledge of rye whiskey. When we mention that our McKenzie Rye recently won the best spirit in New York State at the 2013 Wine and Food Classic, or that McKenzie rye was mentioned with Knob Creek rye in a 2012 Chicago Tribune article calling it one of the best new ryes in America – many tasters say they have only heard about “Rock & Rye” from their grandparents.

The original Rock & Rye was probably first conceived in Pennsylvania. Old Overholt was an original Pennsylvania rye whiskey first produced around 1810. It eventually made its way to the Wild West and some of the same saloons that the famed dentist, gambler, and gunfighter, Doc Holiday, frequented in the 1870s and 1880s. Old Overholt Rye was Holiday’s favorite whiskey. He probably had a shot or two before he and Wyatt Earp walked up the hill to the OK Corral. We are guessing that neither the former dentist nor the marshall dropped any rock candy in their whiskey before the famed gunfight. For non-gunfighters and gamblers, it was not uncommon, in those old saloons, to drop a piece of rock candy in the young rye whiskey. Many say that this was the forerunner to the famed Old Fashioned cocktail first mixed later in the century.

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You may have heard your grandparents tell you that the best remedy for a cold and a cough was a shot of whiskey (NOTE: we do not make any claims regarding the health benefits of drinking McKenzie whiskey!). The rock candy made the whiskey more desirable for the masses. Rock & Rye soon found its way from the saloon bar to the pharmacy counter. It was touted as a way to curtail colds, sore throats, asthma, sniffles, and any other disease of the throat, chest, or lungs. To make it even more palatable, fruits were soaked in the rye and then the herb horehound was added. The use of horehound dates back to the first century as a medicinal herb for respiratory ailments. It is commonly used today in hard candy throat lozenges.

Prohibition began in 1920. Alcohol was allowed for medicinal purposes only and several companies produced it for pharmacies. Walgreens had four stores in 1920. By the end of Prohibition in 1933, there were over 500 Walgreens dispensing Rock & Rye and other whiskey-related remedies. As late as 1952, at a medical conference concerning the common cold, Dr. Thomas Ward, from the famed John Hopkins Medical Center stated that his favorite treatment was still “Old Maryland Rock and Rye.”

During the 20th Century, Rock & Rye lost some of its luster, though it was ordered by “Boon” in the iconic 1978 move, Animal House, as he listened to Otis Day and The Knights play “Shamalama Ding Dong.” Today, Rock & Rye is making a comeback with a handful of commercial brands available in the market.

Although Finger Lakes Distilling does not currently have any plans to release a version of this unique elixir, we have developed our own recipe. Pick up some McKenzie rye and turn your clock back to the days of the OK Corral with our version of Rock and Rye:

1 bottle McKenzie Rye
1 ounce dried cherries
1 orange peel
1 lemon peel
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
2 6-inch lengths of rock candy
1 tsp dried horehound (available at www.mountainroseherbs.com)

Combine the McKenzie rye, cherries, orange and lemon peels, cinnamon stick and one length of the candy in a bowl with a cover and let sit – at room temperature – for 3 days.

Add the cloves, other piece of candy, and the horehound wrapped in cheesecloth for two additional days. Use a strainer lined
with cheesecloth and pour into a jar or the empty McKenzie rye bottle. Enjoy.

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