BERKELEY, Calif. — Heard this one? Guy walks into a bar and orders a shot of whiskey followed by a chaser of pickle juice. Except, it's no joke. The lip-puckering combination, called a pickle back, is morphing from insider's secret to trendy drink.
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And New York bartender Jason Littrell says it's quite tasty, provided you use good quality brine.
"Conceptually, I can see how it wouldn't make sense, but once you try it then it's like — OK, I get it. It's just delicious," he says.
As with all good bar stories, the origins of the pickle back aren't particularly clear. It's generally held to emanate from New York and can be found in a number of bars there. It can be a shot of bourbon followed by a shot of pickle brine, but more often than not starts with a shot of Jameson Irish whiskey.
No denying it, the pickle back isn't to everyone's taste. Those are two powerful flavors to throw at your tonsils.
But mixing brine and booze has its precedents. T.J. Lynch, bartender at The Breslin in New York City, notes that he has Russian friends who mix vodka with pickles. And the classic "dirty martini" includes a few drops of olive brine.
Disgusted — then, hey!
Still, as with the man who first ate an oyster, it takes a bit of derring-do to down a pickle back.
"A very normal human reaction upon hearing the notion of a pickle back is to be disgusted. That's perfectly natural," says Lynch. Most customers "can't believe they're putting it in their mouth," though he enjoys watching the aftermath of "Hey, that's actually good."
Lynch is a believer in homemade pickle juice.
But liquor blogger Jake Jamieson has tried this with commercial brands, recently taste-testing several store varieties. "It kind of intrigued me because it sounded just so disgusting," he says.
The pickled egg brine was a tactical error. But other brines worked out fine. His favorite was Claussen New York Deli Style Half Sours, which turned out to be "pretty excellent," says Jamieson, who works in online marketing in Montpelier, Vt., and blogs at www.liquorsnob.com.
Naturally, pickle power doesn't stop with just one shot. Bartenders also are incorporating pickles into cocktails. Lynch makes a dirty pickle martini and Littrell, who works at Dram in Brooklyn, has a gin-based, pickle-piqued concoction he calls the picklet.
Pickle backs also are popping up in other cities, including San Francisco, where Elixir proprietor H. Joseph Ehrmann serves pickle backs consisting of a shot from the house barrel of Buffalo Trace bourbon or Tezon Blanco tequila followed by a blend of brines from several types of pickles.
If you're feeling really adventurous, there's always the krautini served at the Black Forest Inn in Minneapolis.
Yep, it's made with raw sauerkraut brine.
Bar manager Erica Christ says the drink is made with a mild frozen gin and kummel, a sweet liqueur flavored with caraway seed, cumin, and fennel. If you don't like sauerkraut, you won't like the krautini, she says, though those who like the pickled treat are usually fans.
Of course, sometimes you get the odd customer.
"Every once in a while someone comes in who actually asks for pickle juice," she says.
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