It’s a drink that every bartender knows but where did it come from and what should be the spirit of choice, and for that matter the pickle of choice.
It was back in 2011 when BarLifeUK truly fell in love with picklebacks. Paul Mant had helped with the opening of Pitt Cue in Soho and invited us down to try a drink or two. He gave us no choice when it came to the pickleback (which definitely wasn’t vegetarian friendly) and we were sold.
I’ll confess I can’t tell you what the spirit was that was served alongside the Pitt Cue pickleback (although I have a vague memory of it being a rye of some kind) but most people around the world would automatically suggest Jameson. This is less to do with history and more to do with canny marketing however.
Anyway we are getting ahead of ourselves here. Serving a shot of pickle next to a shot of booze is not a modern phenomena. It will come as no surprise that Russia, Poland and other countries in the Baltic region have been drinking this combination since the dawn of vodka. These countries have a rich history of pickling and a richer history of making vodka (not always to great standard) so it was always going to be a combination that appealed.
There are also, rather worrying if you’ve driven across Texas, reports of long distance truckers in the Lone Star State drinking pickle juice after they’ve had several drinks. Apparently it stops the effect of alcohol making them need to stop and pee as often so they can keep on trucking!!
All The Best Ideas Start With Bourbon
Despite all this history (there are also unsubstantiated reports of it being prevalent in South America), it has only really been part of the international bar scene for around a decade. For this we need to thank a bartender, a hangover, a customer, another hangover and a pickle company with storage issues.
We need to travel to New York in 2006 to an establishment called Bushwick Country Club. The name was less ‘grand’ and more tongue in cheek, as the Bushwick Country Club was a dive bar (a doff of the cap to whomever named it). Working there on this fateful day was a rather hungover bartender called Reggie Cunningham.
We’ve all been in poor Reggie’s shoes. He’d opened the doors, probably only done half the prep, feeling like a small mammal had nested in his mouth overnight, five pints of water in but nowhere near actually needing to pee. He’d have been standing there praying the door didn’t open for another hour and then the tinkle of the bell and the noise from outside disturbed his little haven of joy.
In through the door trotted a “gravelly-voiced Southern Chick”, she approached the bar and asked for a shot of whiskey with shot of pickle juice on the side. Through the fog of his mind Reggie remembered, presumably after being a little sick in his mouth, that a burgeoning pickle company called McClure’s (now one of the biggest in the US) was using the basement of Bushwick for storing their pickles.
After some persuading from said lady on the merits of this combination curing Reggie’s brown bottle flu he joined in and was immediately hooked. The combination that day was Old Crow Bourbon and Dill Pickle Juice. He quickly believed it to be the ultimate hair of the dog.
Oh, a quick aside here, ‘hair of the dog’ is a shortening of the term ‘a hair of the dog that bit you’. It comes from a belief from medieval times that if you were bitten by a rabid dog the best cure was to apply some of the offending dogs hair to the wound (some accounts had it going in a potion). Those crazy medievalists.
Anyway back to our story. So Reggie decided that this drink should be called a pickleback and (despite the fact he had nothing to do with actually coming up with the drink) got his name in bartending folklore.
Have you have wondered why he picked the name ‘pickleback’? Are you now? Well, if you’re from the US it is much less of a mystery and if you don’t give a shit skip this paragraph entirely. There are certain parts and people in the land of lunatic leaders who use ‘back’ as another word for ‘chaser’. It can be a beer back (a beer with whatever your drinking – a BMW for some unknown reason is a Bloody Mary with a beer), an any type of spirit back, whatever you fancy. However, strangely, the most commonly known is a ‘water back’, used to order a glass of water on the side of your shot.
So there you go. Reggie didn’t invent the drink, he didn’t even invent the concept of ‘back’ being a chaser, but he did invent the idea of indoctrinating other bartenders into the joys of the drink by introducing ‘staff meetings’ whenever bartenders would come in and give them a pickleback.
After 8 months of customers seeing bartenders having ‘staff meetings’ they eventually wore Reggie down and the pickleback became a drink everyone in the bar could have. From there it grew quicker than Peter Dorelli’s colostomy bag on a big night out.
When it comes to whether pickle juice is good at solving hangovers the jury is out. Some reports suggest it is, others that it definitely isn’t. Personally I think scientists should probably concentrate on researching things like cures to diseases, famine, global warming etc but hey each to their own.
As to what should be the spirit of choice, well whatever floats your boat really. Many believe that Jameson can’t be beat, if you want historically traditional then it would have to be vodka, the traditional pickleback is bourbon, we like the sound of tequila with pickled watermelon rind juice. For us it is the quality of the pickle that really makes the difference. On that front anything goes, well almost anything…..
……..why not try the Eggermeister, a shot of Jager with a pickled egg!