Rock & Rye: A Study in BS
We look at the shady origins of this historic mix of rye whiskey and rock candy sugar.
I don’t know about you, but I find this time of year challenging, what with all the colds and sniffles and whatnot it tends to bring on. Most people will attribute this to the effect that the season’s wildly fluctuating temperatures and atmospheric disturbances have on the pulmonary tissues.
In fact, it is actually the little-understood lymphatic system that is at fault: on the colder days, it churns out an overabundance of lymphocytes to chase down any infected red blood cells and take them out of circulation. That’s all good. On the warmer days, when these excess blood-cops are far less needed, they tend to get restless and turn on the sound corpuscles, thus producing fatigue and lassitude and opening the door to new infections, whereupon the whole cycle repeats itself.
I find that, during peak cold season, by far the best way to interrupt this cycle and restore balance to the system is by taking regular doses—say, a normal-sized glass every 60 to 90 minutes—of plain old Irish Coffee. The caffeine helps with the fatigue and lassitude, as is its way. The lymphocyte, like its big brother the leukocyte or white blood cell, is of course hypersensitive to alcohol, and becomes inhibited in its action—gently, though: it’s not like Irish Coffees are Sazeracs. Finally, the sugar gives energy to the red blood cells and the cream enriches and thickens the lymph the same way it does the phlegm, as we all know. That both strengthens the alcohol-sensitive leukocytes and further slows their action. It’s all simple, really, and perfectly scientific. But you don’t have to know why it works to enjoy its benefits—just make sure to use a good, rich Irish whiskey and stay away from the decaf, the aspartame and the canned whipped cream. That stuff will kill you.
Is that all bullshit? Why, of course it is. But that doesn’t mean somebody won’t read it on Facebook and take it as a plan of action. I must confess, I’m kind of enjoying this post-expertise new world of ours, when any bit of half-baked crackbrainery can not only get an airing, but find a whole bunch of lazyheads who are willing to go along with it because they can understand it without any additional mind-work of the sort it takes to grasp real, scientific explanations. Sure, this return to ignorance means a lot of kids and old people are going to get measles, among other serious and nasty consequences, and more than a few very funny ones (here, I’m thinking of the Flat Earther who built a rocket so he could peer over the edge of the world; all he saw was more California desert).
But it also means someone with a fertile line of bullshit—like, say, a person who has been making a living for the past 20-odd years churning out intricate yet lively little histories of the world’s drinks—can go around saying whatever he or she wants about any damn thing under the sun and if the experts object there are plenty of people who object to the experts.
This state of affairs is nothing new. In fact, it prevailed from the beginning of time until about a hundred years ago, when the scientists really linked arms and shut down some of the most egregious bullshit. Before that—well, let me offer a case study.
One day in mid-December 1877, a reporter for the Sun, probably the best newspaper in New York and perhaps in America in general, was riding a Third-Avenue horse-car along with the Hon. Ellis B. Schnabel. A Pennsylvania-born ex-judge, Schnabel was a skilled political speaker of the kind you brought in to make the other guy look like a crook and a swindler when it seemed like your guy didn’t have the fries to get elected on his own. Back in 1856, when he had been at the height of his powers, he and his oratorical skills had helped greatly in delivering Pennsylvania for James Buchanan, until recently a shoo-in for the very worst American president.
While the horse-car, the 1878 equivalent of the M102 bus, rolled along, one of the other passengers began coughing. “Thin as a rail and pale as a sheet,” as the man from the Sun put it, with “large, sunken eyes,” it was obvious that he was in the late stages of “consumption”—the dreaded, incurable killer that was tuberculosis. And indeed, once his coughing fit had tailed off, the man looked around and explained weakly that “all the members of his father’s family had died of consumption, and he was the last of four brothers and three sisters,” and that his time was short.
While he didn’t quite come out and cry “nonsense” at this, Schnabel came close:
“Why,” the reporter has him saying, “listen to me, follow my advice, and in six months you will be a strong, hearty man…. You have a sure and simple cure for consumption right here at your own door.” How did he know? As we see over and over with the bullshit-spreaders of our own time, there’s no better guarantee than “I was that man.” You can believe the eggheads sitting over there, in their Institutes and Athenaeums and whatnot, or you can believe me, a regular guy just like you, except more—more rich, more successful, more eloquent; more more.
Naturally, Schnabel was that man: as he told the man (and all of his other fellow-passengers), back in 1849, “in the last stages of consumption,” he had been carried aboard a West Indies-bound vessel in an armchair, in the hopes that a change of climate would do him some good. It didn’t hurt, he added, but the real cure was effected by his simple remedy, and now he was as fit and robust as a big bull fiddle.
That remedy? “Rock candy and whiskey.” You “take five pounds of pure white rock candy and dissolve it in a gallon of old rye whiskey—the older the better.” Before going to bed, you drink a two-ounce sherry-glass of this cordial. On waking up, you take two-thirds as much, on an empty stomach. During the day, you always keep a flask of it handy, and take a “spoonful”—however much that might be—a half-dozen times a day “whenever you think of it.” In this manner, as Schnabel said, he went through 22 gallons of rye in 18 months until he was cured. That works out to about five ounces of whiskey a day, every day; a couple of pretty stiff drinks.
The consumptive on the horse-car was curious as to just how this cure might work, as one might imagine. Schnabel was ready for him. I won’t go into detail, but the gist of it is that the whiskey inflamed the weakened, lesion-dotted pulmonary tissues, and the increased blood-flow that comes with inflammation brought with it the sugar from the rock candy. Sugar being the purest of all foods and building-block of tissues, it feeds and strengthens the tuberculosis-damaged tissues. Over time, they repair themselves and the patient is cured.
As for the rye, it had to be “distilled the old-fashioned way, with a copper worm,” because “steam whiskey”—the vast majority of American rye whiskey was made in steam-injected “three-chamber” stills—“develops the intent poison of the berry and fills your system with fusel and other deadly oils.” The sugar had to be crystalline and uncolored, because that was the only guarantee of its purity.
I’ll give him the part about the sugar, but the rest is, of course, utter horseshit. I won’t get into the modern medical understanding of the tuberculosis bacillus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and its deadly work, but the bit about the rye whiskey is precisely backwards: the steam stills removed a good deal more of the fusel oils from the whiskey than any copper-wormed pot still ever could, and if there was in fact any “intent poison” in the grains or berries of the rye plant, it would strip out more of that, too.
Still, if you dig into the fragments of Schnabel’s biography found in newspapers, city directories and the like, you find that Schnabel was in fact absent from the Philadelphia directory in 1848, and from the newspapers from 1847 until the mid-1850s, so it’s quite possible that he did have a health-related interruption to his career. And he was indubitably of sound health in 1877, seeing as he lived another 23 years, dying in his mid-80s. But Rock and Rye does not and will not fix tuberculosis, nor did it back then, as any doctor would have said.
The problem was, nothing the doctors could do back then would fix tuberculosis either, and people wanted to believe. The Sun’s article was published on December 23. As they recalled a couple of years later, the paper’s editors, who should have known better than to print this claptrap without comment, were immediately deluged with requests for a copy of the article. It was also picked up by dozens and dozens of papers nationwide and became something of a sensation. Distillers were even taking out ads with the article as their text. On February second, 1878, the first ad appeared in the New York papers for “the Sun Cure for Consumption”: the first pre-bottled Rock and Rye. A second brand started advertising a week later. From fake news to real industry in a month.
Meanwhile, people wrote letters to the editor. Down in the South, according to one, it wasn’t rye whiskey but corn whiskey that was combined with rock candy to treat pulmonary complaints, and it had been known for years. While sugar and whiskey were of course no strangers, a diligent search through newspapers and other sources fails to corroborate the claim that rock candy in particular mixed with whiskey is an old, traditional cure pulmonary disease, but you never know (the only medicinal use of the combination I came up with was from the early 1870s and added a third ingredient, “tar glycerine,” extracted from pine trees; I’ll pass). Going strictly by the documents, though, Rock and Rye didn’t become an article of commerce until 1878. After that, it became a standard bartender’s boozaceutical, the thing he’d slide across the bar when you had a coughing fit or a raspy throat. Eventually, it collected things such as sliced citrus, medicinal herbs, and a lot of extra sugar in the bottle so you can see crystals in the bottom. None of that helped its curative power, but none of that hurt it either. Nothing plus nothing and nothing from nothing both yield nothing.
Putting aside its medicinal value, Rock and Rye made Schnabel’s way is an interesting little cordial, speaking gastronomically. Sure, it’s very sweet, but so is Fireball, and people like that plenty. Rock and Rye, however, lacks the cloying cinnamon taste found in that, offering only the flavor of straight rye whiskey, without any of the burn. If you like the flavor of rye, as I do, you’ll find it surprisingly pleasant.
Put a pound of pure, un-flavored, un-colored rock candy—easily purchased online—into a two-quart Mason jar.
Add one 750-ml bottle of straight rye whiskey. Here, I recommend a bonded rye, which is plenty old and, if not pot-stilled, at least distilled to a reasonably low proof. (If you want to be fully authentic, you can use one of the bonded ryes some microdistillers are finally starting to come out with. The most important thing is that it be at least four years old and as close to 50-percent alcohol by volume as possible.)
Seal the jar, shake it a bunch and let it sit in a prominent place in the kitchen. Every time you pass it, give it another shake. The sugar should dissolve in two or three days, give or take.
Bottle it. As sugar loses roughly half its volume when dissolved in a liquid, you should end up with around a liter of Rock and Rye. Easy indeed, and if it won’t cure your tuberculosis, cough or sore throat, at around 38 percent ABV—76 proof—a shot of it will go down easy and sure make you feel better about your condition. Score one for bullshit.