Pickle Back: one shot of Irish whiskey followed by one shot of pickle brine.
Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit category in the United States, perhaps in part because of a friendship between pickle maker Bob McClure and the owner of Brooklyn’s Bushwick Country Club John Roberts — and a little lady who walked into his bar in 2006. She wanted a shot of the pickle brine that she saw in the bar, which had been gifted to Roberts by McClure for storing pickles in his basement. The bartender, Reggie Cunningham, was disgusted (maybe more so because he was hungover that day) by her request to drink straight pickle juice, so he made her a deal: They’d both take a shot of Old Crow Bourbon, and she could have the pickle brine thereafter.
Reggie was on to something. Believe it or not, whiskey chased with pickle brine is surprisingly refreshing.
Jameson Irish Whiskey in particular has a woody sweetness that, when combined with salty pickle flavor, leaves savory, long-lasting flavor. In the Pickle Back’s inaugural days, George and Justin Ruotolo, Bushwick regulars and owners of New York’s Whiskey Town, requested Jameson with their Pickle Backs. By the time these shots were popular enough to make headlines, Jameson had become the standard Pickle Back order. In general, though, the salt and savory vinegar flavors of the brine are the perfect follow up for any Irish whiskey, which tends to be sweeter than most other whiskeys.
“Something about the brininess of the pickles compliments Irish whiskey particularly,” says Sean Kenyon, the co-owner and bartender at Williams & Graham in Denver. “I don’t think it works with much else in the whiskey category, but Irish whiskeys tend to be a little bit on the sweeter and lighter side, and Pickle Back compliments rather than erases [that sweetness].”
When I ask for my first-ever Pickle Back shot, Kenyon pulls out a vat of house-made pickle brine and asks if I like pickles. Definitely. “That’s good,” he says, “It’s really vinegar-y. You have to have that taste.”
I take my shot of Powers Irish Whiskey (Williams & Graham prefers Powers to Jameson) and sling back the brine. I’m expecting the mouthful of brackish residue that I experienced after several failed attempts of surfing lessons, but what I’m actually left with is a pleasant, sweet/savory flavor on my tongue. Reggie really was on to something. I’m converted right then and there.
Kenyon goes on to tell me that not all Pickle Back experiences are this satisfying. He says crucial to the success of a Pickle Back is “dill-y, zesty, kosher, vinegar pickling.”
“I went to a place where they were using bread-and-butter pickle brine,” he says, his expression quickly transforming from enthusiasm to repulsion. “The bread-and-butter pickle almost made me hurl on somebody. And I can handle my booze.”
If you’re trying a Pickle Back for the first time (or for the hundredth time, for that matter) make sure you order an Irish whiskey and a salty, vinegar brine. Even if you don’t love the taste of dill pickles or of sweet whiskey, the combination of the two is some kind of wonderful. Rumor has it, too, that it might reduce your post St. Patty’s hangover.
“I’m not a doctor,” admits Kenyon, “But I know that when people are dehydrated, [doctors] give them pickle juice. Because alcohol dehydrates you, and pickle juice hydrates, maybe you’re finding a good balance.”
Hangover or not, the combination of Irish whiskey and pickle brine strikes a nice balance of flavors. Even if you hate it, you can at least say that you’ve tried it. And you might even become a convert like me.