The Origin of the Pickleback (And How to Make It)

A staple of dive bars around the world, the pickleback is a simple shot combo that sees whiskey (these days typically Jameson) followed immediately by pickle brine. It’s a salty, vinegary, palate cleansing combo invented at the Bushwick Country Club and we spoke with the folks who were there when it was invented.

A gif of two shot glasses side by side. The left shot glass is filled with pickle brine and the right glass is filled with whiskey, and the image shows the drinks being lifted by a hand to be consumed off-screen.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

There’s not much to be said about the preparation of a pickleback, a shot combination that involves slamming back a glass of whiskey followed immediately by a remarkably palate-cleansing chaser of pickle juice. It’s barely even a recipe, really. Put a thing in a glass, put another thing in a glass, and drink them in the correct order.

What a recipe for a pickleback offers instead is a story, where a person enters a bar, asks for something seemingly outlandish, and forever changes the lives and digestive tracts of people around the globe. And while what follows does include tips for serving and drinking, really what’s important here is the history of a drink told by the people who were there when it was invented.

Who Invented the Pickleback?

The pickleback, simply as a conceptual pairing, isn’t unique. Serving strong liquors with something salty and sour is common. It's hard not to immediately think of the classic pairing of tequila with salt and lime juice, where you lick some salt from your hand, take a shot of tequila, and finish the sequence by sucking on a lime wedge. My mind also goes to the traditional Russian pairing of vodka with salted pickles. Visit a part of the world where shots of distilled liquor are consumed with relish (with relish!), and there's a good chance you'll find similar examples of strong, salty, pungent foods and sauces served alongside. The combination works because salt and acid tame the bite of the spirit while intense flavorings like garlic can stand up to the liquor's punch.

But the pickleback as its own distinct pairing has a very specific history: It was created on March 12, 2006 at the Bushwick Country Club by a female patron who walked into the bar and saw then-bartender Reggie Cunningham eating McClure’s Pickles straight from the jar. The patron asked Reggie if she could have some pickle brine with a shot of whiskey; he served it to her and joined her in the drinking, and a star was born.

“I don’t think we were the first people to ever drink pickle juice with liquor, but as far as the phenomenon itself, I think Bushwick Country Club was ground zero that night,” says Cunningham, who now lives in Nashville, Tennessee. “We had restaurant industry people drink there after hours and that’s kind of how it spread, an organic thing through bartenders and eventually onto menus around the world.”

Now, the pairing is ubiquitous, says Roberts. “It was mostly just bartenders who would know about it, and then it just blew up. It’s literally worldwide. One of my ex-employees was backpacking in Central America and a bar in the jungle had a sign that said, 'Try the Pickleback.'"

As you might imagine, it’s a point of pride for Roberts, and for the BCC. “Every once in a while someone says, ‘Oh no, we were doing this way before you,'" says Roberts. "Speak not of magic, I was there when it was written.”

Choosing the Whiskey (or Other Spirit!)

These days, the whiskey you’re most likely to find served with a pickleback is Jameson, but it wasn’t always this way, and there's no reason you have to adhere to it. The original pairing at the Bushwick Country Club was a shot of bottom-shelf Old Crow Whiskey served with brine from McClure’s dill pickles.

Roberts says that the pairing with Old Crow was born from the bar’s then-special, which featured a shot of the whiskey with a tallboy of PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon). Cunningham provides more detail, though.

“[The brine] was meant to make this cheap whiskey palatable”, says Cunningham. “When you’re drinking behind the bar, you don’t want to drink all of the owner’s best stuff, you want to kind of drink something where maybe they don’t notice that you’re drinking it all. And then you can add the pickle juice after it to make it work for you.”

Sofia Valdez, bar manager (and pickleback expert) of Maison Pickle and Tiki Chick (which, alongside Jacob’s Pickles, belong to the restaurant company Pickle Hospitality), says the character of the whiskey can inform the type of brine you pair it with. Irish whiskeys tend to be on the sweeter side, she explains, while American whiskeys can be heavier on spice.

At Jacob’s Pickles they serve George Dickle No. #12, a Tennessee sour mash, alongside brine from their homemade hot sour pickles, Valdez says. “[The whiskey is] briny, it has this beautiful, very rich and bready flavor, and pairs really well with the hot sour brine. It’s like a full meal.”

You’re not obligated to use whiskey, though. “It doesn’t have to be whiskey,” says Roberts. “I know some people who do it with tequila or mezcal. The original was with Old Crow, but a lot of people do it with Jameson. I do it now with Jim Beam. There’s nothing set in stone, particularly in the cocktail world or bar industry. It will find the taste buds of that decade, and that time period.”

Choosing the Right Pickle Brine

Choosing the right brine is also a matter of personal preference, but you should pay attention to quality. The original pairing was with dill pickle brine, which was really determined just by happenstance.

“Bob McCLure started his pickle empire in his kitchen literally three buildings over from BCC and he had asked if he could put a pallet of pickles in our basement,” says Roberts. In exchange, the bar could essentially help themselves to the jars. That was the reason Cunningham was snacking on that particular brand of pickle the day the name-unknown patron came in.

“There’s no set rule,” explains Roberts. “Whatever you like is correct. Except the pickle brine that looks like antifreeze; I tried that once and it was not good.” Cunningham advocates for a brine with some heft to it. “I think it’s got to be very garlicky," he says. "That’s where I’m leaning. A garlicky brine.”

How to Serve a Pickleback

Picklebacks are served as a two-shot combo, with the whiskey being consumed first in a single shot, immediately followed by the brine, to neutralize the afterburn of the whiskey. Both the spirit and the brine should be served in a 1.5–fluid ounce pour, the standard volume for a shot. The brine is generally best when chilled.

Rules are made to be broken, though.

“Maison Pickle, following our standards for presentation, serves [a pickleback] in a Nick and Nora,” says Valdez. “The first Nick and Nora glass would carry only whiskey, and the second would carry the pickle juice as a chaser.” They come in two-ounce pours, and are meant to be sipped, not taken as a shot, with the hot-sour pickle brine mixed with rice vinegar and worcestershire sauce and served with a pickled pepper as a garnish.

Roberts, Valdez, and Cunningham all recommend that you strain the pickle brine before serving, although the degree to which you do this depends on both personal preference and the amount of effort you’re willing to exert.

“Are you having a cocktail party where you’re featuring this?” asks Cunningham. “Or are you just hanging out with your friends? Grabbing the jar out of the fridge, you’re kind of straining it with the lid. If you’re presenting it in a fancy way, maybe pre-strain your juice.”

Being a Part of Drinking History

When asked what it’s like to be a part of the history of such a widely known drink, Cunningham laughs and says, “It’s a bit odd. I’ve never used it to get a job, but I was hard up for a job when I moved to Nashville and thought maybe I should mention that. But thought nah, that’s pretty corny.”

It’s a pairing that stuck with him, though, and Cunningham is now in the process of launching a bottled sauce called “Errthang Sauce,” which he says is “a sauce-slash-dip you can literally put on anything, and it’s got this pickley note.”

“Vinegar rules the world, in my playbook,” he says.

Pour whiskey into a small serving vessel such as a shot glass, and pour pickle brine into an identical glass. Drink whiskey as a shot followed immediately by pickle brine.

A gif showing two glasses, one holding pickle brine and the other holding whiskey, being lift and then put back on the table empty.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Notes

This recipe is adaptable: you can pair spirits and brines of all types. It may take some experimentation to find a flavor combination that works for you, though.

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