When Brooklyn bartender Reggie Cunningham poured his first Pickleback—a shot of whiskey followed by a bracing “back” of pickle brine—in 2006, he had no idea he was creating a cult cocktail addendum, let alone one that would endure for a decade.
“We had been storing McClure’s pickles in our basement, because they were neighbors,” says Reggie Cunningham in this video about the first time he poured a Pickleback—originally named the “Pickle Puffer”—at Brooklyn’s Bushwick Country Club. Though he doesn’t claim to be the first guy to drink whiskey and pickle brine side by side, “I definitely invented selling it in New York,” he insists.
Although some point to the venerable Russian tradition of chilled vodka chased with pickle juice or pickle juice shooters in Texas as possible predecessors, the true Pickleback does indeed have New York City origins.
For a while, it existed mostly as an insider’s handshake—a palate cleanser for bartenders after a hard night of mixing elaborate drinks. “I’ll never understand why it got so crazy,” says T.J. Lynch, owner of New York’s Mother’s Ruin.
As he remembers it, he and The Brooklyn Star‘s Joaquin Baca (creator of the “delicious as hell” pickle recipe he still uses today) would shoot Picklebacks at the Rusty Knot, where they both worked at the time. “We called them ‘staff meetings,’” he says. “We didn’t start offering them to customers for six to eight months. Customers would say, ‘What are you doing?’ and we’d say, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”
After Lynch introduced the combo at the Rusty Knot—then, later, at The Breslin and Mother’s Ruin and, eventually, overseas at the Paris and Moscow Bar Shows—the Pickleback exploded in popularity. By 2010, it’d become a cultural phenomenon with its own Facebook page (since taken down, along with the controversial pickleback vs. Nickelback page) and Twitter account. And in a true sign that we had reached peak Pickleback frenzy, Justin Timberlake reportedly tipped a bartender $100 after he went out to get pickle juice in order to make him one.
Pickleback Mania died down eventually, but the Pickleback itself never completely faded away.
As with many down-market drinks before it (looking at you, Grasshopper), some bartenders couldn’t resist giving the drink an upgrade, experimenting with housemade brines and higher-end spirits. Indeed, the latest crop of Picklebacks elevates the drink above its status quo as a bro favorite.
Owning a space at the very pinnacle of Pickleback riffs is Charles Joly’s (formerly of Aviary in Chicago) Japanese Pickleback, comprised of Yamazaki 12-year-old Japanese whiskey infused with seaweed and served in a traditional wooden box accompanied by a side of spiced pickle brine and “burnt leaf aroma,” as part of a limited-edition Kaiseki flight.
“You see [the Pickleback] everywhere now,” says Lynch, “all over the country, in some pretty random spots.” On its ten-year anniversary, here’s a look just how far the classic back has come.
Betony | New York City
The off-menu Pickleback at this ornate, Michelin-starred Midtown restaurant includes a shot of aquavit alongside a “whey pickling liquid” that the kitchen uses for a beet dish.
Compère Lapin | New Orleans
Paired with the guest’s booze of choice, head bartender Abigail Gullo offers a tropical fruit shrub made with banana, kiwi, blueberries and strawberries mixed with sugar and vinegar.
Rob Roy | Seattle
At this pioneering cocktail den decked out in tufted black leather, a shot of Linie aged aquavit comes with a back of house pickle brine. The duo, called the Stavanger, is named for a city in Norway, where Linie is made.
Plan Check | Los Angeles
At this trio of casual spots best known for burgers and beer, Jameson Black is paired with pickle brine infused with kombu, a type of seaweed used in Japanese dashi. (Note: You won’t find it on the menu, but if you ask for a “The Whickle Back” they’ll know what you’re talking about.)
Boulton & Watt | New York City
This East Village industrial-chic gastropub has a full menu of pickles—and of course, Picklebacks, too. Pair Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey with a choice of traditional pickle brine, pickled beet juice or pineapple mint habanero brine (used to make spicy pickled pineapples).