Connecticut bartender launches a unique bourbon line with a candy crush

Justin Michael Morales needed a backup plan. The veteran bartender and restaurant manager always loved the pirate’s lifestyle of the service industry, but he’s seen too many colleagues marooned when they grow tired of its long hours and physical demands.

The managing partner of Marlborough Tavern in Marlborough, Conn., had long thought about launching his own spirits company as a way of adding security for himself in the industry and sharing his love of craft drinks on a wider scale, but he never had the time to make that dream a reality. Then the pandemic hit, and while the industry was at its most volatile and strangest, Morales saw an opening. “It’s like Littlefinger from Game of Thrones says, ‘Chaos is a ladder,’ ” says Morales, who has worked in the industry for the better part of three decades.

Justin Michael Morales, managing partner of Marlborough Tavern, launched a new spirit called  Up n’ Down Rock and Bourbon.

Justin Michael Morales, managing partner of Marlborough Tavern, launched a new spirit called  Up n’ Down Rock and Bourbon.

Lisa Nichols / Connecticut Magazine

When the pandemic started, Marlborough Tavern began offering the to-go cocktails permitted due to shutdown challenges. His version of an old fashioned began selling incredibly well. Customers loved its mix of bourbon booze and silky sweetness. But the drink was difficult to make, so he upped the price, trying to limit demand. Even still, people kept buying the drink. “There was a wait list; I couldn’t keep up,” he says.

He decided he would produce his old fashioned on a massive scale. However, as he tried to get the concept off the ground, he realized he couldn’t register an old fashioned with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. “It’s not a denomination of a spirit,” he says. To keep climbing the ladder of chaos, Morales needed to take a cue from another popular, if far less violent, TV show and “Pivot!”

Old fashioned cocktails are made with either rye or bourbon and muddled sugars and bitters, with a citrus rind twist. As Morales began to explore ways to produce his old fashioned on a major scale, he came across rock spirits, liquor sweetened by crystallized — “rock” — candy, along with bitters and citrus. Rock and ryes first gained popularity in the late 1800s as medicine and have recently seen a resurgence from craft distilleries. Looking at modern spirits, Morales saw rock and ryes being produced along with rock and rums and rock and brandies, but despite lots of searching then and since, he could not find any rock and bourbons being made. 

Morales saw an opportunity and decided to turn his old fashioned recipe into the country’s first rock and bourbon. Like the cocktail that inspired it, the rock and bourbon is made with honey, rock candy and various bitters. “I didn’t have to change the recipe, it fit right into that,” he says. “It is essentially an old fashioned, but technically and legally recognized by the United States.” 

Morales launched Up n’ Down Rock and Bourbon in June. The spirit is made with a bourbon that Morales purchases in barrels from Indiana that is brought to Central CT Distillers in East Hartford where Morales and his team add ingredients. “We empty the barrel, and then we use figs. We use locally sourced honey. We use birch sap and cherry oak and a bunch of other tinctures.

The finished product is not billed as a ready-to-drink cocktail, but it is one — a great one. Straight from the glass it has the perfect amount of bourbon bite balanced by velvety sweet notes. The bottle I recently purchased to, umm, research this story is already half-gone and will need to be replaced soon.

Morales is planning special-release versions of the bourbon, including a cask-strength version and a pumpkin version for fall.

The spirit is available statewide, and if your local liquor store doesn’t carry it, they can order it for you. You can also enjoy the spirit at its birthplace at Marlborough Tavern, where Morales recommends it as part of two cocktails: The Night Rider, a twist on an espresso martini; and Secretariat, made with fresh lemon juice, ginger ale and mint.

But part of the appeal of the spirit is its ready-to-drink nature. “I can go straight old fashioned with a nice big rock with an orange and a cherry,” Morales says.

That’s the way I’ve been enjoying it.

This article appears in the November 2021 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.