No one ever sits on the fence about pickles. You're either pro pickle or you're not. And if you're the latter, then I feel sorry for you. Especially because that would also suggest that you might not be as enamored or obsessed as many of the bartenders of New York, who for the last couple of years have been propagating a shot widely become known as the 'pickle back'. This may seem like a feeble, even asinine topic to be bringing up in a magazine devoted to whisky, but tell that to the throng of Gotham City barkeeps who often finish a hard night behind the stick with this sweet and salty elixir.
For a start it is a whiskey drink, one which Jameson has claimed as its own, because most bartenders reach for this iconic green bottle when pouring their pickle backs. But any old whisky can easily stand in. But this is not a contemplative drink that should be thought about too much or for too long. It's nothing more than a shot of your favourite whisky (nothing too strong works best) and a side (or 'back') of the leftover juice from pickled cucumbers. It probably sounds gross to some of you, but it's one of those classic 'you gotta trust me on this one' scenarios.
It has become the bartender's favourite after work shot, that livens the weary and comforts the lonely. Taking shots of whisky is certainly nothing new for the bar cognoscenti, especially for those that have just spent the night muddling, shaking and stirring Ramos Gin Fizzes, Rob Roys and Lemongrass Juleps to an arthritic level. Sometimes, a great night can have a greater ending in the comfort of a quick dram and a cold brew. I've yet to meet a New York bartender who hasn't found solace in this salty drop of ambrosia.
There is much conjecture as to where the pickle back first reared its ugly head. Some suggest it was borne at the Brooklyn dive bar, the Bushwick Country Club, which sounds much more elegant than it actually is. McClure's Pickles, now a household name amongst the local gourmands were, at the time, just getting started and needed some space to store their, um, pickles. Reggie Cunningham at the BCC came to the rescue and had some sort of epiphany when a less than salubrious customer suggested a shot of whiskey alongside a 'back' of the pickle juice. Weird?
You bet. But a star was born.
Most paths, however, point to T. J Lynch, a veteran New York bartender who has taken this fabled shot to every joint he has worked at since the nautical themed Rusty Knot, deep in the West Village. He worked with a talented chef, Joaquin Baca, who would often finish his nights with, what else, but a pickle back. Lynch then ventured over to work at the pig centric restaurant, The Breslin where the pickle back tagged along and now onto his current post as the proprietor of Mother's Ruin, a beacon for the city's off duty bar talent.
There are few people who would see the need for a fine whisky with their pickle back. Some would say that it might actually numb the pain of an inferior whisky but that would be to miss the point entirely. In fact it could also go the other way because on my last trip home to Australia, a bartender friend who had become privy to the pickle back had introduced it to the bartenders of Sydney. The problem was that he was using the leftover juice from a jar of sweet pickles which is akin to putting Rose's lime cordial in your pint of ale.
The lesson is that no shortcuts can be taken with the pickle juice and it is one of the easiest things in existence to make. A few minutes on Google will even turn up some interesting and quirky recipes. A little jalapeño here, some star anise there. Go crazy.
I found myself propped up at a wonderful local in Nashville recently called Bar 308 where the owner Ben Clemons poured me a shot of chilled George Dickel with an even colder wedge of fresh watermelon. If there is indeed a Nirvana, I was sitting in it at that exact moment.
I guess the point is that more bars are putting in a lot more thought into offering up a quick fix that doesn't involve a thoughtless shot. As witnessed above, we're seeing whiskey shots that are far more interesting than the rubbish we usually see.