In 1948, the country crooner Tex Ritter released “Rock and Rye,” his love song to a once-ubiquitous backcountry blend. “When you’re feeling kind of low and you think you’ll die, / Don’t count sheep to go to sleep, just drink some Rock and Rye,” he sings, his voice growing garbled, the music punctuated by hiccups and ice clinking in a glass.
Ritter didn’t have to spell out what Rock and Rye was for his Southern fans. The drink, rye whiskey infused with rock candy and fragrant herbs and spices such as horehound and cinnamon, was a staple of cocktail books and grandmothers’ medicine cabinets; it was also a popular way to smooth out the rough edges of rotgut rye. In the late nineteenth century, doctors even published Rock and Rye recipes in journals such as the Southern Medical Record.
But eventually, the whiskey got better and the doctors more sensible (and less fun), and the drink fell from grace. By the time the Grateful Dead sang about “Half a cup of Rock and Rye / Farewell to you old Southern sky” in their 1972 song “Mississippi Half-Step Up-town Toodeloo,” few listeners even knew what Rock and Rye was.
Lately, though, Rock and Rye has been popping back up on menus from Austin to Richmond, part of a trend among bartenders toward premade cocktails. If Rock and Rye was once a cure for what ailed you, today it’s a cure for boredom at the bar and for batched-cocktail lovers with punch fatigue (not to mention a source of relief for overworked bartenders tired of muddling and shaking for ten minutes to make a single drink).
A number of new, premade Rock and Ryes are now available, such as Hochstadter’s Slow & Low and Mister Katz’s, but many bars prefer to make their own, adapting the old-fashioned recipe to suit modern and regional palates. Another reason bartenders love it is that, aside from the whiskey and candy, Rock and Rye is a blank canvas—you can add other liquors, fruit juices, bitters, or spices, whatever fits the moment.
Wonderland, a bar in Austin, rotates through seasonal versions of its Rock and Rye Toddy, mixing the house-made Rock and Rye with Laird’s AppleJack in the fall and peated Scotch in the winter. “The element of Rock and Rye’s history lends itself to seasonality,” says Jason Stevens, the bar director at Wonderland. “With old macerated drinks like that, you’d use whatever you had around that was fresh.” Year-round, the drink draws the crowds. “It’s definitely our top seller,” Stevens says. “We make four gallons a week.”
And while today’s rye whiskey is much improved from the early days of the Rock and Rye, it’s still a robust, spicy liquor that packs a bite. “Something like the Rock and Rye makes it more approachable,” says Kaitlin McGavock, the owner of Lil Indies, a cocktail lounge in Orlando, Florida.
Last year Lil Indies debuted a one-off version of the concoction mixed with cacao and maraschino cherry juice. “It’s a great sipper,” McGavock says. The drink became so popular that it’s now a regular on the menu.
Others adapt the recipe to give it a distinctly Southern twist. John Maher, the owner of the Rogue Gentlemen, a bar in Richmond, makes his own rock candy with Cheerwine soda, which he says gives a bright fruit counternote to the cloves, cinnamon, and star anise he adds at the end. The key to a great Rock and Rye, Maher says, is “a balance of sweetness to spice and bitterness. I lean toward the bitter profile, so I’ll add slightly more horehound, and maybe a little wormwood if I’m feeling squirrelly.”
The other critical element: time to let the flavors meld and blossom. That may sound like a hassle, but the process is straightforward, and you can develop a batch at home in about four days (see recipe). And when it’s finished, you’ve got a bottle of cocktails at the ready.
But convenience is only part of the story. More and more, drinkers want something with depth, both in and out of the glass. That means layers of flavors, but also a drink with a history, a drink that connects them to a different time, a different place. After all, how many other cocktails have their own Tex Ritter song?