Pickle what? That was my reaction when I first heard about the Pickle Back. Yep, you read that right: Pickle Back. The drink, a shot of bourbon or Jameson Irish Whiskey followed by a shot of pickle brine, has developed a cult following complete with a Facebook fan page and press release from Jameson. It’s particularly popular among New York City bartenders who have spread pickle fever to other cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco and even London.
It’s not all that crazy when you put it into context. The Russian and Nordic cultures have paired pickles and pickle brine with vodka for generations. I’ve been blending the brines of several pickled veggies for my Bloody Elixir for years. And, of course, many Martini drinkers add a splash of olive brine to their cocktails.
After much research—and many shots—I’ve traced the origins of the Pickle Back to Brooklyn’s Bushwick Country Club. In 2006, neighbor McClure’s Pickles asked to store some inventory in the bar’s basement. The Country Club’s bartenders were also using the brand’s brine in some cocktails. One Sunday night, according to owner John Roberts, a customer asked for a shot of pickle juice to accompany her vodka. The order inspired bartender Reggie Cunningham to jokingly pair Old Crow Bourbon with a shot of McClure’s spicy pickle juice instead of the traditional can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. But the reaction from patrons was no joke, and the bar started selling a lot of them.
When the Ruotolo brothers brought the drink to their East Village bar, Whiskey Town, the recipe changed slightly as Jameson replaced bourbon. The briny creation was soon being served at other bars, including the Rusty Knot and the Randolph. It can now be found around the city and beyond.
While bartenders use all sorts of pickle juices, Roberts remains a traditionalist. “If it’s not McClure’s it’s not the same,” he says.
H. Joseph Ehrmann is the proprietor of Elixir in San Francisco and the Brand Ambassador and Mixologist for Square One Organic Spirits. He is also one of Liquor.com’s advisors.