The Pickleback is Drink of the Day today because, well, November 14 is National Pickle Day. This pickle jamboree was first encouraged by the Pickle Packers Association and has been celebrated since 1949. You might laugh, but pickles have a long history and go better with booze that you might think. Really a pretty big dill, pickles come in all sorts of forms. Condiment, snack, side dish, whatever you like. You’re probably thinking about cucumbers, and that’s our focus today, but almost any vegetable can be pickled.
So whether you like half sours, full sours, kosher dills, Polish, Swedish, Bread and Butter, Danish or even Kool Aid Pickles (a Mississippi Delta area snack) there’s something for everyone in pickle land.
Pickles and National Pickle Day
In the words of the great American author William Faulkner, “civilization begins with fermentation.” He was referring to beer and wine, which were necessary due to a lack of potable water. But fermentation is also an important part of food preservation, which was a very big deal before refrigeration.
So what exactly is a pickle? The word pickle comes from the Dutch pekel or German pókel, meaning salt or brine. Throw the right cucumber in a brine and native lactobacillus go to work. They turn naturally occurring sugars into lactic acid that makes the saline environment inhospitable to spoilage bacteria. Plus it adds a nice sour goodness. Bada bing, food is preserved and tasty at the same time.
Pickles have been around for thousands of years, likely originating when cucumbers from their native India were pickled in the Tigris Valley. That became a big deal. Cleopatra supposedly credited pickles for her health and good looks. Julius Caesar apparently fed pickles to his troops. In Russia a glass of pickle or sauerkraut juice is a common hangover cure.
It’s only natural that people take pickles seriously. In 1948 the pickle packers Sidney Sparer and Moses Dexler were arrested in Connecticut for selling pickles “unfit for human consumption.” The state Food and Drug Commissioner Fredrick Holcomb went on the record about how to check if you have good pickles. He told reporters that you can “drop it one foot and it should bounce.” The pickles in question did not bounce, the vendors were fined $500, and the pickles were destroyed.
What to do for National Pickle Day? Have pickles, of course. Here at The Drunkard’s Almanac we don’t often discuss solid food beyond cocktail garnishes. Pickles are certainly fair game as a Bloody Mary garnish, but today we’ll go in a slightly different direction with the Pickleback.
You won’t find the Pickleback in any of the classic cocktail books we often cite. It’s a relatively modern invention that emerged from the Bushwick Country Club, a Brooklyn dive bar, around 2006. Reggie Cunningham was bartending and snacking on a pickle to nurse a hangover of his own. A woman walked in and challenged him to join her in a shot of Old Crow bourbon followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser.
Cunningham resisted, but ultimately relented as the customer was insistent. So he poured the drinks and the rest is history. He introduced the pairing to more customers and the demand went off the charts. It spread quickly as another ‘bartender’s handshake’ or secret menu item for customers in the know. (Just like the Ferrari or Crunk Like a Monk.) Once word got out its popularity grew and bars all over the world started adding Picklebacks to their menus.
So Cunningham named the Pickleback, and popularized it worldwide, but pickles have been popular forever and related to drinking in many places like the Russia example above. It’s likely you most often have a pickle with a sandwich, but now it’s time to make good use of the salty, seasoned brine.
- 2 shot glasses
- 1½ oz Bourbon or Rye whiskey, or Tequila, or pretty much whatever you like.
- 1½ oz Pickle juice
- Pour spirit of choice into one shot glass.
- Pour pickle juice into second shot glass.
- Toss back the shot of liquor.
- Follow immediately with pickle juice.
- Rinse and repeat.