Rock and Rye, and Genuine Rock Candy Syrup

[This expansion is in response to a bar-tender’s request for additional information]

Do you want to make a historically-authentic Rock and Rye?

Let’s take a look at historic sources for the majority consensus on what that drink was:


Notice Thomas Stuart’s plagiarism.

I serve Rock and Rye giving the whiskey and the syrup separately so that the drinker can mix it however sweet they like.

The drink seems pretty straightforward.  Rye whiskey served with rock candy syrup is Rock and Rye.  It was good treatment for a sore throat because the alcohol in the whiskey is both antiseptic and temporarily deadens nerve endings, temporarily killing the pain.  The rock candy syrup, being the heaviest-possible suspension of sucrose in water, makes the drink viscous enough to coat the throat long enough to do its alcoholic work there better.

It is common today to find flavored rye whiskey liqueur, or flavored rye whiskey served with a stick of rock candy, called “Rock and Rye.”  While they can be tasty and worthwhile, they are not the historic drink Rock and Rye.  It is misleading to tell guests that such things are something traditional or time-honored.  Those who truly do care about drink tradition should give such new concoctions names other than “Rock and Rye.”

AJoP 67 1895

The above is from the American Journal of Pharmacy, volume 67, in 1895.  It indicates that rock candy syrup is the left-over syrup from the production of rock candy.  As such, no sugar should be left to crystallize out of the syrup.  In New York State, in 1873, a case was brought to court over an alleged deficiency found in barrels of rock candy syrup.  The plaintiffs made clear that they had desired high quality rock candy syrup “that would not crystallize, or the sugar fall down.”

Around the same time, admonitions can be found advising to obtain “rock candy syrup from a rock candy manufacturer.”

Below is from the Western Druggist, Volume 17 in 1895:

WD17 1895 97

Volume eleven of the Bulletin of Pharmacy in 1897, specifies that when cooking the syrup from which rock candy will be produced, no temperature higher than 112º Fahrenheit should be allowed.

BoP 11 1897

The 112º Fahrenheit limit is kept to prevent the conversion of sucrose into invert glucose.  Some amount of conversion from sucrose into glucose may be considered acceptable by some people making simple syrup, but it isn’t okay for the production of rock candy.  If you want to produce rock candy, you’d best stick to low temperatures and pure sucrose and pure water — in super-saturation so that rock candy will form.  Once all of the excess sugar has crystallized out, you will have rock candy syrup.

So, rock candy syrup and buttermilk have this in common: they were both traditionally the stuff left-over after the making of the named thing (rock candy or butter), but are now routinely divorced from those processes and are simply compounded independently.

Notice that, according to some of the above sources, it seems to have became common for other types of syrup to be sold as rock candy syrup.  Perhaps the growing difficulty in getting authentic rock candy syrup led to some bars serving an altogether different drink when asked for Rock and Rye.  Such recipes as those below make up a tiny minority of published recipes for anything called Rock and Rye, but they do exist.


Note that the above drinks would not relieve a sore throat very well, being without the thick viscosity of actual rock candy syrup.  One of the sources, William Boothby, was apparently spoken to so much about the Rock and Rye recipe in his 1891 book that he dramatically added to it for his 1908 book.


To this day, when shown that their methods are out of step, many bar-tenders will still assert that “either way is correct.”

But what about the syrup?  Has authentic rock candy syrup become available again?  

Amoretti RCS

The above ingredients for Amoretti brand so-called ‘rock candy syrup’ show that, though it may be a heavy syrup, it is definitely not traditional rock candy syrup.  Traditional rock candy syrup would not contain dextrose or fructose.  Genuine rock candy syrup carefully contains only sucrose and water.  Why it would need dextrose, fructose and “natural flavor” is a mystery to me!

So, what if you want to have traditional rock candy syrup?  Some old sources state that one of the reasons for the production of so much imitation rock candy syrup is that making the real thing via rock candy production takes time.  Unfortunately, that is true.  But, if you don’t care how much rock candy you make, the time needed can be drastically shortened.

Bring one part (by volume) distilled water to a temperature as close as possible to, but not higher than, 112º Fahrenheit.  An induction cook-top (like this one) that can be set at exactly 110º Fahrenheit is really useful.  Add three parts (by volume) pure, refined sugar (sucrose).  Stir over the same heat (never exceeding it!) until the sugar is dissolved.  It may take some time.  Pour the syrup into mason jars.  If you want to harvest the rock candy instead of discarding it (stuck to the inside of the jar), suspend a string in the mason jar to which the rock candy will form.  Once no more rock candy forms inside the syrup, pour it from the mason jar into a syrup bottle.  This syrup will contain the highest possible amount of sugar in a stable solution.  It will be the closest thing to genuine and traditional rock candy syrup that you will have ever had.

Stoughton’s Bitters and Stoughtonesque Bitters

Stoughton’s bitters were famous and in-demand before Angostura aromatic bitters were even created.  Even long after other famous bitters entered history, Stoughton’s bitters were still preferred by some as the bitters of choice for the Whiskey Cocktail, and others, into the early twentieth century.

Stoughtonesque Bitters 01

The above instructions were given in the text as being from a U.S. Navy captain.  If you want to make and taste what he considered to be the perfect Whiskey Cocktail, you will need some Stoughton’s bitters.  Unfortunately, anything being sold today as “Stoughton” bitters is so inferior in quality that they cannot possibly be anything like the product of such former repute.  But, there is always hope of coming up with something better on your own.  For that an understanding of what Stoughton’s bitters were is necessary.

Firstly, like in the case of Boonekamp bitters, Stoughton’s bitters seem to have been named for a physician that legendarily prescribed the formula without ever himself marketing the bitters as a trademarked item.

A British book, The Compleat Housewife from 1758 indicates to make Stoughton’s elixir only with brandy, gentian, Seville (bitter) orange peel and, for red color, cochineal.

Here are some formulae for Stoughon’s bitters as suggested by various sources throughout the nineteenth century:

Stoughton's Bitters Formula Survey

There are many other formulae from the same time period that can be found.  They also range from simple to complex.  I have included three that are simpler and one that is complex.  The complex one can be seen as a bit of an outlier for Stoughton’s bitters, but I wanted to show that there was considerable variety.

Virtually all pre-prohibition formulae for Stoughton’s bitters have the bitter principal made up of both gentian and bitter orange peel.  Some have other bitter ingredients and some do not.  All of them are colored by a reddening ingredient such as red sanders (a.k.a. red sandalwood or red saunders), cochineal, saffron, or camwood (a.k.a. African sandalwood).  This is consistent with the navy captain suggesting that his Whiskey Cocktail with Stoughton’s bitters should be “tinted slightly with red.”

Considering all of this, I think that the minimal reliable description of Stoughton’s bitters would be bitters based on gentian and bitter orange peel that should yield a hint of reddish color to mixed drinks.

In fact, that is pretty much what famous English physician, William Cullen, stated in his 1789 book, Materia Medica.  In 1819, the Cyclopaedia published by Abraham Rees agreed with Cullen:

Stoughton's Bitters Cyclopaedia Mention

This establishes that from very early on, Stoughton’s bitters were thought of as gentian and orange peel bitters.

Not Stoughton's Bitters

Since any product that though one can purchase today labeled as “Stoughton Bitters” is surely nothing like the historic bitters in either flavor or color, what is one to do?

Note the following ingredient list from a U.S. bottle of Angostura aromatic bitters:

Angostura Aromatic Ingredients

Since gentian is listed prior to “natural flavorings,” it is clear that there is more gentian used in making Angostura aromatic bitters than all of the the other botanical ingredients combined.

Angostura aromatic bitters can therefore be described as primarily a gentian bitters — one that is also famous for its ability to tint drinks red or pink.

So, with the slightest effort can be mixed:

Stoughtonesque Bitters Formula

I call this mixture of bitters Stoughton-esque because there are probably some minority ingredients in the above products that would not have been in a classic Stoughton’s bitters.  Yet, I am convinced that making these Stoughton-esque bitters will probably yield something very close to the historic bitters with a minimum of work.

Norpro Funnel Set

I settled on the parts shown above because I like the product that way.  I also liked the result of using three parts Angostura aromatic and two parts Angostura orange bitters.  You could mix the two in different proportions.  But I think that the early medicinal instruction that Stoughton’s bitters were gentian bitters improved by the addition of orange peel, taken with the survey of historic formulae for Stoughton’s bitters, clearly indicates that the primary ingredient should be gentian.  Therefore I would recommend always using more gentian-rich Angostura aromatic bitters in your Stoughton-esque bitters than Angostura orange bitters.  Remember that there are other ingredients in Angostura aromatic bitters and so using equal amounts of the two bitters would put the gentian behind the orange.  It should also be noted that I can not recommend the use of any other brand of orange bitters at this time.

This project is easy to to do, and the result is nice.  Then you can make a Whiskey Cocktail the way our good captain liked it.