I’ve never actually tasted rock and rye, though I’ve heard many, many songs mention it. Charlie Spand, Grateful Dead, Wood Guthrie, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and others come to mind.
Rock and Rye has always been seen as distinctively American—it was one of the few domestic liquors presented at the American pavilion of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. When sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross wrote about immigrants in his 1914 text “The Old World and the New,” the drink was the very symbol of assimilation: “In the Italian home the bottle of ‘rock and rye’ is seen with increasing frequency by the side of the bottle of Chianti.”
As befits a rock-solid piece of Americana, the drink found its way into a succession of popular songs. There was a “Rock and Rye Rag,” a “Rock and Rye Polka,” and barrelhouse piano man Charlie Spand belted out a blues in praise of “Rock and Rye,” marveling that “You got good stuff/ I can’t drink enough.” Blind Lemon Jefferson, in the “Big Night Blues,” hollered “Wild women like their liquor/their gin and their Rock and Rye.”
The most demonstrative ode to the pleasures of Rock and Rye came in the 1948 ditty of that name sung by Tex Ritter: “When there’s worry on your mind, here’s what you should try/Go to bed and rest your head and take some Rock and Rye.” Soon old Tex is slurring the drink’s praises, and in-between giddy hiccups there comes the declarative clank of ice in a glass, followed by the satisfying gurgle of liquor being poured.
But the greatest musical tribute to the sugared whiskey concoction came in 1934 when Earl Hines and his Orchestra recorded a hard-charging dance chart called “Rock and Rye,” penned by arranger Jimmy Mundy. It was the sort of swing anthem that would soon catapult Benny Goodman and his band to fame. That’s because, in 1935, Goodman hired Mundy away from Hines, and the killer-diller Mundy style on display in “Rock and Rye” would distinguish many of Goodman’s biggest hits, including the definitive Swing Era epic, “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
(click here to continue reading How’s Your Drink? Eric Felten on the Rock and Rye – WSJ.com.)
Here’s a recipe, if you are feeling adventurous. Have you ever tried a sip? or to make it? I’m not quite sure what horehound is, but according to Robert Johnson, it might already be on your trail…
Rock and Rye
Adapted from LeNell Smothers
- 1 bottle rye whiskey
- 3-5 tbsp rock candy
- 2 slices orange
- 2 slices lemon
- 2 pieces dried apricot
- 1 slice pineapple
- 1 tea bag full of dried horehound
Combine whiskey and sugar in a jar or decanter. All other ingredients optional.
Allow all—except for horehound tea bag—to steep for a day or two or more. Leave horehound in for no more than two hours. When sugar is finally dissolved, strain and bottle.
Cough a few times and clutch your chest in distress. Then serve the Rock and Rye on the rocks.