There isn’t much to a pickleback. It starts with a shot of whiskey — preferably a cheaper whiskey — and as soon as you’ve gotten it down, you chase it with a shot of pickle brine. The effect is a near-immediate neutralization of the whiskey, leaving you primed for another.
There’s little wonder as to why it works so well. “Whiskey is really drying, while the vinegar and salts in pickle brine make you salivate, so it clears the alcohol out really fast,” says Terry Miesle, a master flavorist at the Sensient Technologies Corporation. “You’ve also got an irritant with alcohol and then another irritant with the vinegar, so it confuses your brain and cuts the alcohol taste almost immediately.”
What is more astounding, though, is just how quickly the drink has become popular. Originating in a Brooklyn bar known as the Bushwick Country Club in 2006, the pickleback spread across New York City almost immediately and has since reached every corner of the globe. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to find a pickleback on any bar menu.
Bushwick Country Club owner John Roberts never thought the bizarre chaser his bartender invented would amount to anything more than an interesting house special, but 16 years later, he’s selling so many picklebacks that he barely knows what to do with the leftover pickles.
Per a recent conversation with Roberts, this is the story of how the pickleback was born, tipped back and swallowed into bartending history.
Can you tell me about the birth of the pickleback?
The first pickleback was created on March 12, 2006, and it only came about because of a perfect storm of events. A little less than a year earlier, I opened the Bushwick Country Club. Our beer and shot special was a tallboy of PBR and a shot of Old Crow bourbon, which is not great bourbon. But it’s not the worst bourbon either. It is what it is.
At the same time, Bob McClure started his pickle empire, McClure’s Pickles, in his apartment three buildings over. He asked me if he could put some product in my basement. It was actually a pallet of pickles — can you imagine having an entire pallet of pickles in your apartment? I told him, “Yeah, I got space.” He said to take a case for ourselves for pickle martinis or pickle Bloody Marys — things like that. So we kept a jar of pickles in the fridge behind the bar.
That fateful Sunday, my bartender Reggie Cunningham was on the opening shift, and he was hungover to epic levels. He had commandeered a jar of pickles for himself and was sitting on the bar eating pickles out of the jar, one after another.
Then, a regular came in and said, “I want to drink that pickle brine.” Now, people have been drinking pickle brine since time immemorial. I’ve heard they do it in Russia, and people like it for the electrolytes, so it’s nothing new. Anyway, she wanted to drink it, and she challenged Reggie to do the same. But he said, “No, no,” to which she countered, “We’ll do a shot first.” So they did a shot of Old Crow and followed it up with some pickle brine.
When I came in on Tuesday to do inventory, there was a gaggle of regulars at the end of the bar. They’d had way too many of them. They were telling me about it, and I said, “You guys are doing what?” And they told me, “You’ve gotta try it! It’s great! It’s called pickleback!” I told them, “You guys are fucking idiots. That’s disgusting.” “No!” they said. “You gotta try it!” So, finally, to shut them up, I said “Fine!” and I did it.
I did the shot, and it immediately erased the whiskey. So, I said, “That’s going to be our house special.” That’s how it happened.
Don’t a lot of people associate the pickleback with Jameson, not Old Crow?
The Jameson connection started with a few guys from The Rusty Knot [a Manhattan dive bar that closed in 2020]. They came in one night and asked for picklebacks with Jameson. I don’t know why they wanted to ruin Jameson, but whatever. I served them, and soon after, they began selling them with Jameson at The Rusty Knot, which is where celebrities would go when they were slumming it by the Westside Highway in Manhattan.
Do you know who named it?
It was Reggie who insisted on the name, actually. One of those regulars suggested calling it the “Pickle Puffer.” But Reggie said, “No, it’s pickleback! It’s got to be pickleback!”
How many picklebacks would you say you sell now?
Oh boy, I don’t know. I’d say I go through about five gallons of pickle brine a week. You’ve got to use a good-quality, spicy, garlicky pickle brine, so I have all of these extra pickles all of the time. Eventually, we began supplying them to our sister bar, The Starlight Tavern, for fried pickles and burger garnish.
How did the pickleback spread so quickly?
In the bar world of New York City, it’s a small little town. Everybody who knows what they’re doing knows everybody else, or it’s just one-to-two degrees of separation between them. At the Bushwick Country Club, a lot of bar people come in after a long shift and say, “I just want a beer and a shot.” So they got wind of the pickleback and they’d take it to their bar. That’s how it spread. It took on a life of its own and literally went worldwide. It’s in Australia, it’s in Japan, it was mentioned in a Spider-Man comic and it was in that Seth Rogen movie An American Pickle.
The craziest thing was that one of my ex-employees was backpacking in the rainforest in South America around 2008 when she ran into it. It was the middle of nowhere — she was in the back of a pickup truck for an hour to get to her camping area. At the camp, there was a bar that was a treehouse, and she went in there and they had a sign that said, “Try the pickleback.”
How does it make you feel to know that the pickleback is everywhere now?
When I was growing up, I wasn’t the highest-grade student. I was this punk rock fan who people probably thought wouldn’t amount to anything. Yet, because of my bar and Reggie, we’ve positively affected the entire world. Me and my bar have attained a modicum of immortality. I hadn’t thought of it that way until someone said it to me just like that: “You’ve actually changed the entire world.” It really put it into perspective for me. Any place that drinks, pretty much, is going to have a pickleback. That’s kind of heavy.