I don’t usually like things like Hochstadter’s Slow & Low Rock & Rye. Liquor adjacent things like Southern Comfort and the various Jacks Daniel featuring honey, apples, and, if I recall correctly, pureed ham, were never my jam but over the summer I began a slow trek into canned, readymade drinks like Cutwater’s Vodka Mule. They were, in few words, great beach drinks.
When I heard about Rock & Rye I was nonplussed. It sounded like a ruined whiskey. I was wrong.
What is Slow & Low Rock & Rye?
This is a rye-based Old Fashioned in a bottle. It is infused with “rock candy, raw honey, angostura bitters, and orange peel.” It is 84 proof and apparently contains one sugar cube 84 proof and extra dry – the equivalent of one sugar cube (four grams of sugar) per two-ounce serving. It is definitely not sweet — just a hint of orange and sugar with every sip — and it’s surprisingly good.
The brand, Hochsteader’s, is loosely based on a 19th-century distillery based in New York. In those days whiskey was, shall we say, piquant. To cut the taste, bartenders would serve rock candy on the side. From Whisky Advocate:
Oddly enough, rock and rye’s first role was as medicine. By the late 1870s, virtually every pharmacy in the nation was stocking their shelves with some proprietary recipe, often promoted as a sort of cough syrup. As a medicine, rock and rye was taxed at a lower rate than liquor, adding to the potential profit. In 1883, the drink was finally reclassified as a distilled spirit. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau definition, rock and rye has a minimum 25.5% alcohol by volume, must be made with rye, straight rye, or whiskey distilled from a rye mash, and contain either rock candy or sugar syrup. The addition of fruit, fruit juices, or other natural flavoring is allowed, but optional.
In 2010, distiller Rob Cooper brought the concept back as a mixed, bottled drink. That it took so long for me to notice it is a testament to both the difficulty in spreading and distributing booze nationwide and the stigma attached to these kinds of drinks.
How does Slow & Low Rock & Rye taste?
At its core, this is an Old Fashioned with slightly more bitters. An Old Fashioned consists of a half teaspoon of sugar, a few dashes of bitters, a teaspoon of water, and two ounces of bourbon. A mixed Old Fashioned is very sugar-forward and has little of the aromatic orange of the Rock & Rye. In fact, fans of straight rye will love this. It’s far more like a straight liquor than a mixed drink and the addition of the sugar and the oranges adds to the flavor rather than making a muddled mess.
The drink comes in a bottle or in small, portable cans (which I’ll get next summer) and the recipe is pretty simple: pour 1.5 ounces into a glass with an ice cube. Because you don’t have to deal with simple syrup or bitters you can easily put this out at a picnic or around a campfire without having to go all mixologist in the woods. In fact, I suspect this would be a wonderful party drink and a bottle of this next to the Egg Nog or white wine would be a welcome addition.
I’m glad I got to know this spirit. While its provenance is more marketing-oriented than traditional — Cooper Spirits is based in those well-known traditional distilling spots of Palm Beach, New York, and Philadelphia — the Alberta, Canada-sourced whiskey is great and the whole package is well done, from flavor to bottle. We can forgive hipster drink innovators if they’re doing something good and Hochstader’s is doing something great.