I must admit that, even for a guy who loves and regularly consumes classic whiskey cocktails, the “rock and rye” was a new concept to me when I first started reading about Hochstadter’s Slow & Low. How this historically relevant drink had flown under my nose is a mystery to me, but allow me to sum it up before I get into the product at hand.
The “rock and rye” is a somewhat informal name for a type of drink made from rye whiskey and rock candy. An early barroom staple of pre-prohibition America, a small dish of rock candy was supposedly kept on hand to render lightly aged, swill-esque rye whiskey more palatable. In the post-prohibition era, the drink managed to survive in the cultural consciousness by making a jump to the medicinal shelf, where rye and sugar, possibly with other spices, were bottled and sold by pharmacists to cure what ails ya. In doing so, the rock and rye has some claim to the title of the original “bottled cocktail,” because the results are fairly similar to an old fashioned.
Enter Cooper Spirits Co. and their Hochstadter’s brand of rye whiskey, which has taken the resurgent concept of the rock and rye and then canned it in tiny, 100 ml cans to create a portable canned cocktail. These cans of 84 proof rock and rye feature the expected straight rye whiskey and rock candy, along with “raw honey, dried navel oranges and Angostura bitters” to create a product that is clearly angling for the classic cocktail market, and the old fashioned in particular. The concept appeals to the lazier cocktail drinker—simply crack a can, pour over a bit of ice, and you’re done.
However, Cooper Spirits has also gone and expanded on the concept by creating a second version of Slow & Low, this time made with 100 proof, 8-year rye. Sold in a full 750 ml bottle instead of the small, single-serving cans, this version is clearly presenting itself as the premium product. Getting our hands on samples of both at Paste, we decided to compare them side by side in a dual review.
My initial impressions of the 84 proof version of Slow & Low is that this variant is meant to appeal to drinkers who might like classic cocktails in a mixology setting, but still crave the simpler pleasures and sweet gratification of mixed drinks. Of the two, the orange is more strongly pronounced and immediately perceptible on the nose, and there’s more suggestion of sweetness. There’s also a bit of an off note to me on the nose of this one, something lightly musty/stale that reminds me a bit of a well-aged paperback book or used bookstore, mixed with a touch of peppery spice.
On the palate, this drink is sweet, although it stops just short of being cloyingly so. You get somewhat generic whiskey character that one might not necessarily recognize as rye, but it’s pleasantly approachable and the level of heat is about where you’d expect for the proof. Sweet, juicy orange is tempered by a bit of recognizable Angostura bitters flavor and some herbal bitterness, but sweetness wins out. That sweetness comes across in a way that is somewhat on the “sugary” side—less caramelization, and more pure and table sugar-like in its sweetness, which makes it seem a bit more artificial of the two drinks. After coming to this conclusion, I added some ice, which helped cut down the sweetness a tad and round out the flavors, although the body of the drink was already on the thinner side to begin with.
In conclusion, the 84 proof version of Slow & Low almost feels like a bridge between the world of more sugary mixed drinks and a drink that you’d be served in a legitimate cocktail setting. It might very well be an excellent way for people interested in whiskey and cocktails to segue into drinking them, but I don’t really imagine straight bourbon or rye drinkers indulging in these cans on a regular basis. Drinkers of “Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey,” etc., on the other hand …
The press release for Slow & Low’s 100 proof variant calls it a “limited edition.” That’s a shame, because I think this version, featuring a higher grade of rye and subsequently higher proof, is the real winner of the two, and a drink that I could actually see keeping on hand in my home bar.
At first glance, looking at the two labels, I assumed that the two brands used the same whiskey but were simply diluted to different strengths—but now I’m thinking that’s probably not the case. The 100 proof variant boldly proclaims that it’s made with with 8-year-old straight rye (the same whiskey as the 4 to 15-year-old vatted rye from Hochstadter’s?), where the 84 proof version doesn’t carry any age statement. It seems unlikely that they wouldn’t choose to include a fairly impressive 8-year age statement on the cans if they could, so my assumption is that they’re made with a younger whiskey.
Likewise, the 100 proof Slow & Low certainly smells and tastes like it’s got some extra age and refinement on it. The whiskey is much more pronounced on the nose, and you know you’re drinking a whiskey cocktail—deeper notes of caramelization, rye bread, pepper and baking spices. The orange has been retracted in intensity, and is better integrated in the whole. It’s markedly hotter, which isn’t necessarily a positive, but simultaneously better balanced.
On the palate, these impressions hold true. It’s a bit hot, brash and boozy, but after a sip or two of adjustment, the assertive flavors won me over. This cocktail is less sweet, more “rich”—it earns its level of residual sugar with increased complexity, caramelization and barrel character. Rye spice and cinnamon play nicely with orange and assertive booze, and all the rough edges and any sense of artificiality of the 84 proof version have been smoothed away. In short, it’s much closer to something you’d actually be served at a cocktail bar.
All in all, both of these Slow & Low versions of Rock and Rye are better than many of the prepackaged cocktails I’ve sampled. Even the 84 proof is superior to many, although it seems targeted more closely at drinkers who prefer a sweeter whiskey drink. The 100 proof version, on the other hand, is very intriguing indeed. Save for the fact that it’s a little on the hot side, it’s a more authentic cocktail experience than I’ve ever had before out of a bottle.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident craft beer and whiskey guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drink content.