Rock and Rye

Alcatraz opens

Your cocktail calendar entry for: August
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Today we’re mixing the Rock and Rye to recognize the opening of an infamous prison.  Alcatraz, the place of legend and notorious criminals, opened for business as a Federal prison facility and received its first guests on August 11, 1934.  So we’ll get to the Rock and Rye as a suitable Alcatraz cocktail.

Alcatraz History

A small rock island in San Francisco Bay, isolated by strong, cold currents, the first European to discover it was Spanish naval officer Juan Miguel de Ayala in 1775 during the Spanish rule of California.  Fast forward to the 1846 Mexican-American War and the U.S. annexing California, by 1850 California was a U.S. state.

President Millard Fillmore considered the island a strategic resource and ordered the island set aside as a military reservation.  Fort Alcatraz was built with artillery to protect the approach to San Francisco Bay  By 1859 the island was also used to house soldiers convicted of crimes.  Its use as a military prison grew over time.

In 1909 construction began on the concrete main cell block, which was completed in 1912.  The facility was acquired by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1933 and designated as a federal prison in 1934.  The intent was to provide lodging for prisoners who caused trouble at other federal prisons.  Sort of a precursor to the Supermax prisons of today.

The first federal prisoners arrived August 11, 1934.  During its 29 years of use Alcatraz housed some of the most notorious criminals in American history.  Guys like Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, the drug trafficker Bumpy Johnson, and Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”).  A high security operation, the penitentiary claimed that no prisoner ever escaped.  Thirty-six made 14 escape attempts, with 23 captured alive, six shot and killed, two drowned and five listed as “missing and presumed drowned.”  Poor odds of success, indeed.

The Drink Choice

The drink choice seems obvious:  the Rock and Rye cocktail.  After all, Templeton Rye, manufactured illegally in Iowa during Prohibition was said to be Al Capone’s favorite.  (We should note that the Templeton Rye sold today is distilled in Indiana rather than Iowa, and has been the subject of three class action lawsuits over deceptive marketing.)  We’ve should also recognize the island as The Rock even if actual stones are not part of the recipe.

Rock and Rye also has history related to Prohibition, so it’s doubly appropriate for Capone’s late career as an inmate.  It’s a pre-Prohibition drink disguised as medicine and was sold even when Prohibition was enforced.  By the 1870s almost every pharmacy had a recipe, prescribing it useful as a cough syrup or for stomach issues.  Even as a cure for the sniffles, or with cancer added for good measure.

Sometimes spooned into hot tea, the formulations were a mixture of rye whiskey, rock sugar and citrus, often steeped with spices.  That, of course, means that the Rock and Rye can be prepared in bulk and stored in the refrigerator.  It can be ready to cure your ills at any time.

Making a Rock and Rye

To make a bulk version, pour a bottle of rye into a large jar.  Add a couple of orange slices, a couple of lemon slices, a few inches of a rock crystal candy string, a cinnamon stick and perhaps a few cloves.  Feel free to put in whatever spices you like, though you should probably lean toward baking spices.  Perhaps a couple of star anise pods or a bit of ginger.  You can also use horehound candy drops if you’ve got them around.  (Horehound candy was an old-time treatment for digestive and respiratory issues.)  Let it steep for five days or so.  Strain back into the original whiskey bottle and toss in the fridge.  Similar to, but more complicated than the Freezer Door Martini, it’s also covered in our collection of whiskey drinks.

We’ll cover the single serving recipe here for those of you low on rock sugar and horehound candy.

Rock and Rye cocktail

Rock and Rye

From Difford’s Guide, this quick and easy formula does not require steeping any flavoring agents in the whiskey.  Citrus is there, as is the simple syrup for sweetness, and a maraschino cherry adds another flavor dimension.  Please do note that use of the fluorescent red items often sold as maraschino cherries should be banished from your liquor cabinet and their use will relegate you to the Hall of Shame.  There simply is no substitute for the real thing, so please use Luxardo cherries or equivalent.
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  • Add cherry and a touch of juice from the jar to your trusty shaker and muddle.
  • Add rye whiskey, lemon juice and orange juice.
  • Add ice and shake until frosty cold.
  • Strain into ice filled Old Fashioned glass
  • Drink.
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