“Pickle what?” That was my reaction when I first heard about the Pickleback. The drink, a shot of bourbon or Jameson Irish whiskey followed by a shot of pickle brine, has developed a cult following. It began as especially popular among New York City bartenders, who then 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. 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 Pickleback 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 lager. 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 as the whiskey shot of choice. The briny creation was soon being served at other bars, including the now-closed Randolph and Rusty Knot. It can now be found far and wide.
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.
1 1/2 ounces Jameson Irish whiskey
1 1/2 ounces McClure’s pickle brine
Add the whiskey into a shot glass.
Add the pickle brine into a separate shot glass.
Instruct the drinker to take the whiskey as a shot, then the pickle brine as a chaser.