The Curious Case of the Pickleback

 

I don’t remember the first time someone ordered a pickle juice chaser from me, but I’m sure I was surprised. I assumed they wanted to listen to Nickleback or had been fishing and caught a stickleback.

No, they wanted to chase a shot of whiskey with a shot of pickle brine. It sounded odd, but I got some from the kitchen.

It’s not weird anymore. We keep pickle juice in a store-and-pour next to the sweet and sour.

So what’s the deal? Is it a brilliant flavor combination? Is there some real science going on? Or is it just a fad people are copying?

 

The Invention of the Pickleback

Brooklyn bartender Reggie Cunningham tells the story of a Florida redneck woman with a gold tooth ordering Old Crown with McClure’s pickle brine and making him drink one too back in 2006. He shared the concept with his co-workers and regulars. Soon the bar was charging a dollar extra for a brine chaser and selling them like kettle corn at the fair.

Cunningham and his crew dubbed it “the Pickleback.”

Yet the consumption of pickle juice with spirits is much older. Many claim to have used pickle juice out of necessity. Pickled snacks are paired with drinks all over the world. The Germans wrap pickled herring around a pickled cucumber or onion. The Russians pride themselves in lavash spreads of zakuski involving pickles of all kinds, caviar and more to nibble while sipping vodka. Even Moe from The Simpsons had his pickled egg jar, although I wouldn’t suggest it.

Chasing vodka with pickle brine is a Polish tradition, serving both to take the bite from the shot and prevent hangovers.

 

 

What’s the Science Here?

As I like to say, alcohol doesn’t cause hangovers. Dehydration does and alcohol causes dehydration. It’s a diuretic that pulls water, electrolytes and potassium from the body. Pickle brine contains acetic acid, an antidiuretic that prevents dehydration and encourages the body to absorb that which alcohol depletes.

So it’s not all about the flavor. Consuming a vinegary concoction is salubrious.

Athletes have found that pickle juice relaxes the nerves that cause muscle cramps. So if you drink like a champion, take a lesson from Olympians.

Dieticians also believe pickle juice can calm an angry Vagus nerve and cure acid reflux.

It seems pickle juice can combat dehydration, cramps and an upset stomach, all of which are hangover symptoms.

 

 

Okay, Let’s Embrace This

I’m beyond fighting my initial distaste for the pickle chaser. Our bar is not properly stocked without a bottle of brine. It’s a thing now.

I have a regular who sometimes has a pickle juice and vodka martini shaken and served up with a few skewered pickle slices. Classy enough.

I have another regular who follows well tequila with pickle juice. I wanted to call it a “Piquila.” She said,”No, it’s a Tequickle.” She’s right. It’s a much better name.

And after all, what’s a dirty martini other than vodka or gin with the brine from pickled olives?

I’m not an olive guy, but I do enjoy a super cold pepper vodka martini garnished with a couple pickled peppers. Feels cold but tastes hot. Why not drop some of that brine in there?

 

 

So, What Else Can You Do With Pickle Brine?

A great challenge for any cocktail maker is to force them to use an oddball ingredient. So let’s do this.

What are the characteristics of pickle juice? Vinegar, for certain. Some are sweet and others are spicy. They contain herbal notes. Definitely some pucker power.

I see any basic cocktail as a balance of strength, sweet and sour. In a margarita the strength is tequila, the sweet is triple sec and the sour is lime.

So pickle juice can be used as the sour component, particularly if I use my favorite pickles which are a spicy crunchy garlic mini dill.

Now we need strength and sweet. Herby, you say? Gin, of course, particularly something non-classic without all the juniper. Doesn’t Hendrick’s have cucumber among its botanicals? Yup.

And for sweet? Why not something that brings its own unique spice to the party? Ginger liqueur.

A brainstorming session one night at the bar resulted in the following:

  • 2 parts Hendrick’s gin
  • 1 part ginger liqueur
  • 1 part pickle brine
  • Shake well
  • Serve up or on the rocks
  • Finish with a splash of ginger beer
  • Garnish with mini pickles or slices, of course

 

It was damn good and certainly unique. Plus it’s not often that something I pour doesn’t involve smashing some fruit first.

 

Fergus O’Sullivan dove deep into vinegar in cocktails a couple of years back on this site, and that’s definitely worth a look if you’re interested in digging deeper into the world of briney drinks.

 

So let’s put another tool in our boxes. The juice in that jar of pickles is fair game. It’s tasty and it just might be good for you.

 

 

The Curious Case of the Pickleback