The Return of Rock & Rye

mister katz rock and rye
mister katz rock and rye

All photos by Ayla Christman. My bartender friend John has been behind the stick in NYC for over 25 years, and he's witnessed many trends come and go. When I told him I was writing a piece about a new Rock & Rye on the market, he laughed, fondly recalling the dusty bottles of the stuff they kept behind his East Village bar in the 80s, a heavily sweet brown liqueur with pieces of sugary pickled citrus peel at the bottom. He told a story of a former customer, a NY Transit Authority clerk who was known as ‘Jimmy Tokens.’ He would order it when he wasn’t feeling well, because at least it was “fruit.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Rock & Rye was something almost any bar carried, and most made their own, often as a way to make some rather rustic whiskey more approachable. The classic recipe is rye sweetened with rock candy, sometimes also ginger and/or citrus peels, essentially an Old Fashioned cocktail-in-a-bottle. Theoretically, all it needs is a couple of dashes of bitters and a twist to complete it. Since rye had a hard time coming back after Prohibition, if a bar carried it at all after that, it was likely a manufactured bottled bastardization of the stuff (for nostalgic purposes?), neither “rye” nor “rock.” It was something that was as much to rye whiskey as Tang is to orange juice.

But Rock & Rye is also something that was beloved by a certain generation of Americans, and it’s finally making a proper comeback.

Harper's Ferry
Harper's Ferry

As of press time, NY Distilling Company in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is still aging the sipping rye they plan to release next year. In the meantime, they have gifted us with Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye, a younger version of their rye mixed with real rock sugar from Brooklyn’s own In the Raw and an infusion of  dried bing cherries, orange peel, cinnamon and other spices.

I recently had the pleasure of tasting the liqueur (it’s only 65 proof) with Mister Katz himself, NY Distilling co-founder Allen Katz. He explained to me that this was a product near and dear because of its historical moniker. It also creates “a greater opportunity for versatility” in product extension. It can be presented as either a low proof base spirit, or a cocktail modifier.

It definitely has a lot going for it. Tasting it neat, the chosen ingredients serve to push the flavors of the whiskey itself into the mid palate, and it’s not nearly as sweet as I was expecting it to be. With a couple of dashes of bitters it’s pretty much good to go straight out of the bottle, as intended.

However, NY Distilling also happens to have a fantastic bar that looks into the distillery itself, the Shanty. Head bartender Nathan Dumas (he’s also well schooled in distilling practices and has quite a hand in their spirits production), served a couple of cocktails he created to showcase the Rock & Rye. All deliciously balanced and great ways to taste the ingredient.

Martini Robbins

  • 1.25 oz/37 ml Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye
  • 1 oz /30 ml NY Distilling Company's Dorothy Parker American Gin
  • 1 oz/30 ml Sweet Vermouth

Stir ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Martini Robbins
Martini Robbins

Cave Creek

  • 1.25 oz/37 ml Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye
  • 1 oz/30 ml Glenlivet 12-Year Scotch Whisky
  • .75 oz/22 ml Fresh Lemon Juice
  • .5 oz/15 ml Real Grenadine
  • .25 oz/7.4 ml Campari

Shake ingredients over ice and strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with a lemon twist. Serve with a straw.

The Harper’s Ferry

  • 1 oz/30 ml Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye
  • .75 oz/22ml  Pierre Ferrand Cognac 1840
  • .5 oz/15 ml Botran Rum
  • .75 oz/22 ml Fresh Lemon Juice
  • .5 oz/15 ml Simple Syrup

Shake ingredients over ice and fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Lightly garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

Too bad Jimmy Tokens didn’t have access to a true Rock & Rye back in the day. Luckily the rest of us do now.