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Big Star to release new seasonal rock & rye craft cocktail

Written by
Elizabeth Atkinson

In the 1890s, adding rock candy, sugar and citrus to rye was a way to mellow the harsh bite the spirit has on the back of your tongue. The resulting blend, Rock & Rye, had another purpose too—as a medicinal drink to calm coughs and colds.

More than 100 years later, we’re not using booze as medicine anymore, but Rock & Rye is making its way back into the cocktail scene. This Thursday, Big Star releases its first batch of its version of the historical drink, made with 100-proof whiskey and candied peaches, meant to be taken as a shot.

Big Star’s Rock & Rye has a perfect balance of sweet and hot. It’s easy to shoot but finishes with a nice, warm whiskey bite. The citrus has a strong presence but isn’t overwhelming, and the peach mellows out the whiskey. Big Star beverage director Laurent Lebec says it should appeal to both kinds of whiskey drinkers—those who want it neat and those who prefer it in cocktails like whiskey sours.

Lebec first tried a version of homemade Rock & Rye about four years ago at a family gathering—and hated it. This past year, he went to an event at Violet Hour and had a similar cocktail when the idea hit him to make a version for Big Star. As pre-prohibition whiskey drinks hit their stride, he wanted to invigorate them even more.

“There’s a lot of whiskey bars in the city,” Lebec said. “What can we do differently?”

Big Star started creating the Rock & Rye in February, but Lebec wanted to perfect the drink before offering it to the public.

The drink takes 3-5 days to make, starting with a fruit infusion. The fruit is dehydrated and candied in-house, then placed in the whiskey to sit. Afterward, Lebec adds rock candy. Once that’s dissolved and mixed in, he adds citrus peel.

He tried batch after batch–some would be a tad off while some would taste like Fernet, nowhere near close to Rock & Rye. One day Lebec had some friends try it. He was nervous, but they loved it. From there it was just a matter of perfecting the recipe to make in larger batches.

A whole lot of effort also went into the design. Lebec said the labels had to be well thought out while also feeling subtle. He wanted the look to be inspired by tattoo art but stay true to Big Star’s branding, and he pulled artist Kris Olsen in for the job.

"There is a big red ceramic rooster in Dove’s Luncheonette. It sat on Big Star partner Terry Alexander's desk for a while in the office," Olsen said. "Since this project was very Terry and Laurent-centric, I wanted to use something that was visually representative of those two people. Both have been supportive of my work and asked me to do this label, though they could have gotten anyone."

Lebec says Rock & Rye will be offered in different iterations throughout the year—be on the lookout for a ginger and cinnamon version this fall. The shot will be offered for $4, or in a glass flask that holds about 5 shots for $20. Some days, Lebec said, the Rock & Rye could be the $3 shot of the day. And although you can’t buy any to go, this fun drink is well worth a trip to Wicker Park–it may just convert you from being a Fireball shooter.

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