In 2009, the media discovered a new low-brow, two-step shot, in which a dram of whiskey was chased by a shot of straight pickle brine. A score of articles were written about it in record time in outlets like The New York Times, New York Magazine, The New York Post and more. By 2010, you couldn’t escape the Pickleback. It had infiltrated watering holes of all stripes—restaurant bars, sports bars, pubs and, perhaps most importantly, buttoned-up cocktails bars that otherwise took themselves quite seriously. The latter made an exception where the Pickleback was concerned, however, because the shot was waggish and tongue-in-cheek; it helped to soften the then-haughty reputation the mixology crowd had built up and was trying to shake; and, well, it moved a lot of whiskey.
Today, the novelty drink remains a staple the world over, a bonafide modern classic of sorts. Thirst for it or cringe at it, you can’t deny its staying power. It’s the drink that has birthed a million rousing toasts and the sole reason many bars keep pickle brine in stock by the gallon.
The unlikely phenomenon began 13 years ago in a pretentiously unpretentious would-be dive bar in Brooklyn called the Bushwick Country Club, a bar that had unwittingly become a stopgap storage facility for a fledging pickle company.
To untangle the drink’s origins, we talked to John Roberts, owner of the Bushwick Country Club; Reggie Cunningham, a bartender who served the first one and gave the drink its name; Bob McClure, co-founder of McClure’s pickles, the first brine used in the Pickleback; bartenders TJ Lynch and Jason Littrell, accomplices in the rapid spread of the Pickleback; and Chris Patino, a then representative of the liquid conglomerate Pernod Ricard, which owns Jameson Irish whisky and quickly co-opted the drink to, well, move a lot of whiskey.
Bob McClure (co-founder, McClure’s pickles): In 2006, when we first launched McClure’s pickles, I was living above a bar called the Bushwick Country Club in Brooklyn. At that time, we had no place to store our finished pickle products.
John Roberts (owner, Bushwick Country Club, 2005 to present): Bob McClure started his pickle company in his kitchen. He asked to put a palate of pickles in my basement because he had no room in his apartment. He said, “and take a case for yourself, use it to fool around with drinks.” We were fooling around, adding it to a Bloody Marys, whatnot. Then came that fateful Sunday, March 12, 2006. That’s when that woman came in.
Reggie Cunningham (bartender, Bushwick Country Club, 2005 to 2010): I was eating some of their pickles behind the bar on a particularly slow and rainy night. One of our regulars, a pretty rough little biker chick—she had a gold tooth—demanded I pour her a shot of the brine with her shot of Old Crow and that I take one as well. I protested. I was so hungover and a little under the weather that night and was trying not to drink. She persisted and as per usual I couldn’t resist, so I joined her. It was amazing. I had another and another and another that night.
Roberts: I come in on Tuesday, there are a gaggle of regulars at the end of the bar. They have had a few of these. They are full of Christmas cheer. “You gotta try this!,” one of them said. I said, “OK, if it will shut you howling lemurs up, I’ll try it.” I tried it and, oh my God, it erased the shot! I said, “This is now our house special!” We wrote it on our back mirror.
Cunningham: The owner John came in and I showed him and a few other regulars and we immediately put it on the “menu” as the Pickleback.
Roberts: They were saying, “You should call this something else.” Reggie is like, “No! It’s a Pickleback!”
Cunningham: I didn’t invent drinking pickle juice and liquor, that’s been going on forever, but the “Pickleback” as it is ordered and served today, started at the Bushwick Country Club.
McClure: When we first heard of the Pickleback, we thought it was just awesome—and a great way to expand America’s use of both pickles and the brine itself.
The Shot Goes Viral
Cunningham: It was a tough sell at first. After people had one, you know the rest.
Roberts: The guys from the bar Whiskeytown [George and Justin Ruotolo] were partners of Rusty Knot. They would always come in, but they wanted to do it with Jameson.
TJ Lynch (bartender, The Rusty Knot, 2008 to 2010; The Breslin, 2010 to 2011): “I learned it from Quino Baca and George Ruotolo. Quino had just opened Momofuku and George owned Tribe on St. Marks Place, where I used to hang out. George lived near Bushwick Country Club, so that’s where he learned it, and mercilessly forced it upon us.”
Jason Littrell (bartender, The Randolph, 2006 to 2009): The Pickleback was first introduced to me by my former boss Hari Kalyan, one of the owners of The Randolph. If I recall correctly he came in one day really excited about something he had tried at the Rusty Knot. I remember thinking he was crazy when he explained it to me. We were a cocktail bar, what the hell are we doing serving drinks with pickle brine?
Lynch: We did a little press about it at the Knot, then I brought it to the Breslin. The New York Post did a thing about it [in 2010]. That was around the time it started to pick up steam.
Littrell: I used to have what became an industry night at the Randolph on Tuesdays, and [the Pickleback was] pretty much just how we said hello. It seems like overnight that we went from just being given a quart of brine, to buying it by the gallon.
McClure: Once the media began picking up information about Pickleback, other brands began jumping in on this trend.
Cunningham: George and Justin from the “Whiskey” bars [several whiskey-oriented bars in NYC with the same ownership] preferred Jameson to the Old Crow. From there, I guess Jameson saw a trend and threw some money at it. I certainly never saw any Old Crow reps out at the bars doing any spends.
Chris Patino (Director of Brand Advocacy, Pernod Ricard, which owns Jameson, 2007 to 2016): Jameson was the lucky benefactor of a trend that started with Old Crow and McClure’s pickle juice.
Roberts: I’m sure they have people who troll social media for any mention of Jameson. They even interviewed me. Jameson was like, “Marketing! Yes! Any way to sell Jameson.”
Lynch: We already drank a lot of Jameson, so we used it for Picklebacks just out of habit. But even after all these years and different versions, it’s still my favorite.
Littrell: I certainly didn’t know about the provenance of the Pickleback, but I do know that Jameson made sense for that particular shot. The price was right, it was a quick pour, it was sweet to go with the savory, and the brand certainly supported our efforts. We went from going through a bottle a week to about a case.
Patino: It was me who served up former Jameson Master Distiller, Barry Crockett’s first, and last, Pickleback at a Spirited Dinner that I hosted [at Tales of the Cocktail] back in 2009.
McClure: Bars do specifically stock McClure’s for their Picklebacks, and while we stopped making the jarred version of our brine specifically for Picklebacks, restaurant owners still purchase our two-gallon foodservice buckets of pickles for use of the brine.
Littrell: You can run a serious bar without taking yourself too seriously. That’s what I learned from the Pickleback. It was delicious, but not fancy.
Roberts: It’s all over London, France, Japan, the United States. Recently someone sent a picture from Caracas. One of my ex-employees was backpacking in Central America. There was a bar in a tree house. She sent me a picture of her holding up two shot glasses. She said, “You’ll never believe what I’m having!”
Cunningham: My old joke is, “How do people order Picklebacks?” Answer: “Can I get four Picklebacks please?” The bartender puts down four Picklebacks. “Actually, can you make it six?” The bartender puts down two more. “Sorry to be annoying, but can we get three more and I swear that’s it?” The Pickleback—annoying the fuck out of bartenders since March 2006!