The Pickleback – a hip drink

I have never been very cool.  I try sometimes, but it doesn’t come naturally.  I was a band geek and brain in high school, happy and with a great group of friends, but not cool.  In college, I had a fabulous time, but my friends dressed me up in their clothes when it was time to go out to a club. 

By the time I hit grad school, I had accepted my reality. While I am fabulous in many ways, I would never be the first person to know the new cool thing.  I’m fun and smart and stuff, but I’m not cool.  I’m good with it.

All this is to explain why I only learned about Picklebacks this week.

See, apparently all of the cool kids have been drinking them for the last few years.  They were the new hipster drink… like three or four years ago.  But I don’t really hang out with hipsters.  It’s the waxed moustaches.  They freak me out. 

Anyway, me finding out about Picklebacks is probably kind of the equivalent to that day when your grandmother finally got a facebook account.  But since a bunch of people I’ve talked to also didn’t know about them, let me pretend I’m cool and tell you all about this “new” (to me) hip drink.

The Pickleback.  A shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle brine.

The instant I heard this, I knew I had to try it.

See, when I’m not drinking whiskey, my cocktail of choice is a very dirty vodka martini.  I say it like that when I order it: “Very dirty.”  Not just because it leads to funny table talk about “filthy martinis” and “skanky martinis” and innuendo-laden eyebrow raises about what kind of girl would order a drink like that.  But also because I want some serious olive brine in there.  I want the resulting martini to basically taste like seawater with bleu cheese olives in it.

So whiskey and pickle brine?  Yeah, I needed to try that.

Further research on the Pickleback revealed that the generally accepted whiskey of choice for them is Jameson Irish Whiskey. 

Um, not to be a whiskey snob about it, but I’m sure we can do better than that.  Still, I went to my local shop and got a bottle of Jameson for comparison purposes.  Then I went and bought a bunch of different pickles.  Let’s do this thing.

See that garlic and dill and stuff at the bottom of the jars?  Those are the kinds of pickles you want.
See that garlic and dill and stuff at the bottom of the jars? Those are the kinds of pickles you want. Photo by Rebecca Palmer /

First thing’s first.  The pickle matters.  Like, a lot.  Some varieties of pickles made my salt-craving mouth happy.  Others made me shudder in horror.  If you think the idea of drinking the neon yellow liquid that comes out the Vlasic jar is gross, you would be right.  It’s totally gross.

Basically, you want a pickle in which you can see the stuff that is flavoring the brine.  Garlic, sprigs of dill, etc.  It doesn’t have to be pickled cucumbers either.  The liquid from some pickled green beans that I had already just happened to have in the house was a solid runner up for best tasting.

The whiskey also matters.  Once we narrowed down the best pickle brines, I tried some after a shot of bourbon (Bulleit). No.  Don’t do this to yourself.  I tried a shot of Scotch (Speyburn).  Don’t do this either.  I tried a different Irish whiskey (Killbegan).  It was just wrong.  They were all wrong.  Jameson really was the best choice. 

Well, it was the best in the first round, anyway.  When one is taste-testing shots of different whiskeys crossed with shots of different pickle brines, let’s just say that evaluative capabilities decline rather quickly, as does enunciation, and standing upright.  I had to break the testing into a couple of nights. 

Once I realized how much the pickle variety mattered, I knew I needed to get my hands on some McClure’s, the original pickle used in the Pickleback creation myth.  I sent my husband out on a mission, and he came home with a bottle each of the McClure’s garlic dill and spicy pickles.

I gleefully set up shots of Jameson with each of the McClure’s brines and bottomsed-em-up. 

We have a winner.  Jameson and McClure’s garlic dill brine.  Exactly the same recipe pretty much everyone else is using.

So what does it taste like?  Honestly, a lot of people talk about an emergent property to the Pickleback, a new flavor that is neither whiskey nor pickles.  I didn’t really experience that.  To me, it just tastes like a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle brine.  It’s like the brine makes you forget that you just had Jameson in your mouth.  Except that you’re drunk in five seconds flat. 

If you can hold the whiskey in your mouth and then also shoot the brine and swallow them together, maybe you get a bit of the “meaty” flavor that some describe, but I found the experience more fun doing the shots one at a time.

Honestly, it seems like kind of a dangerous drink to me.  Because mmmm, pickles.  Salt and vinegar makes me crave more salt and vinegar.  But if I have a shot of whiskey each time, wheeeee! 

After the McClure’s testing round, as I was sitting there, slightly “pickled,” I had an epiphany. 


Pickles… and corned beef… and rye.  Yes!  Not the bread.  The whiskey.

I stumbled to the kitchen, rolled up a slice of corned beef, and topped it with a tiny dollop of spicy mustard.  Poured myself a shot of McClure’s, and a shot of Bulleit rye. 

Corned beef.  Rye.  McClure’s brine.

Oh, my mouth was so happy.  I tried it with a shot of Templeton Rye as well, and that was even better, but is probably a waste of good whiskey. 

The classic Pickleback: Jameson and McClure's
The classic Pickleback: Jameson and McClure’s

So in conclusion, the Pickleback is indeed dangerously delicious.  It can be made in classic form with Jameson, or with rye whiskey.  I mildly preferred the rye, but I prefer rye in general over Irish whiskey. 

Pickle-wise, McClure’s garlic dills are going to be tough to beat.  The spicy McClure’s were also good if you like a kick, but I found the heat distracting.  Safie’s pickled green beans and deli style dill pickles were also excellent choices.  I also actually kind of liked the sourness of the juice from a little bottle of cornichons, although no one else did.  Do NOT attempt a Pickleback with mass produced common pickle brands, or with those barrel-style pickles from the deli.  I love those kinds of fat classic barrel pickles as much as anybody, but the brine is too mild.

McClure’s pickles are available online, or at Fresh Market or Whole Foods.

If you like pickles, even if you don’t like whiskey, this is a good one to try.  My sister doesn’t like whiskey, and she seemed to enjoy them quite a bit! Just be careful.  The drunk happens fast.  And drink lots of water if you want to wear rings or be able to move your fingers the next day.

Or just have another Pickleback in the morning.  Pickle juice is a traditional hangover remedy, and add in a little hair of the dog… well… you didn’t hear it from me.