What's Up With All These Pickle Drinks Lately?

If you've been paying attention to the activities of your local watering hole, you may have noticed an odd addition to the local cocktail mixologist's list of ingredients. If you're like me, and more accustomed to seeing pickled juices in a jar with eggs or, well ... pickles, then you may be asking yourself one big question: What's up with all these pickle drinks lately? Fair question, and perhaps one close to what ancient peoples asked when the practice of "pickling" was introduced to them as a way to store perishable food. 

But as far as alcoholic beverages go, pickle drinks are still a relatively new concept in American bars and restaurants, particularly when you consider how long humans have been pickling things. Now they're even moving from bars into package stores, from pickle hard seltzer to Claussen-branded sparkling wine cocktails. And you know what? I think they are pretty tasty. 

There's a history here that started around 4,000 years ago, and it brings us right up to the present. Below is a brief history, as well as more than one reason why pickle juice might be the wildcard at your next cocktail hour, after-work drink, or nightcap.

Pickle juice has been a favorite of humans forever

I found some clues as to why this tangy brine has become such a thing with athletes, barflies, cocktail aficionados, and more importantly, me, in the origin of pickle juice. The first recorded use of pickle juice goes all the way back to Mesopotamia some years ago — 2400 BC to be more exact — when that civilization would store cucumbers in the salty-sour brew to ferment cucumbers for later eating. 

The staying power of the pickled foodstuff made it a perfect pantry stock for sailors who could spend weeks and months at sea, with food sources needed to survive their voyages without spoiling. That being the case, it's unsurprising that Columbus is credited with bringing pickles to the American continent, what with all the sailing he and his crew were known to do. 

The influx of immigrants into 1650s New York, like Dutch farmers who grew and preserved cucumbers for market and Eastern European Jews who imported their knowledge of dill pickling to the States, helped cement pickle juice's place as a go-to natural preservative for unrefrigerated-yet-spoilable food. The practice gives food a punchy flavor, one that I love to infuse with spicy heat or a burst of citrus through the addition of a single chili pepper or zest of lemon. Now, thanks to a discovery made by a bar in Brooklyn, I get to enjoy that punchy versatility in my favorite cocktails.

Pickle juice cocktails were invented on a dare

While most whiskey fans — and 38% of Tasting Table readers — would agree that a little ice or water helps bring out the natural flavor profile of a whiskey, not many would think of a shot of pickle juice as a complimentary sidekick. Well, that's exactly what I'm suggesting, and in fact, it actually exists as a pretty popular drink called the pickleback. 

The history of the pickleback shot begins in 2006 at a bar in Brooklyn called Bushwick Country Club. A Floridian regular walked in on Reggie Cunningham, a hungover bartender working behind the bar, chomping on McClure pickles out of the jar. Ironically, the McClure Pickle Company was active on the same block, just a few doors over and Bob McClure — the founder of McClure Pickles — was living in an apartment upstairs at the time. After spotting the pickles, the regular asked for a shot of pickle juice with her Old Crow whiskey but insisted Cunningham have a drink with her. It was at this point that Cunningham knew he had stumbled onto something. 

By 2010, the pickleback and Cunningham were getting featured in the New York Times. Bars around the country were becoming overtaxed with orders. That kind of virality points to one undeniable thing. Even though it sounds a little off-putting initially, no matter who came up with it, pickle drinks are enjoyed by lots of people. 

Pickleback tastes incredible

I've tried it on my own with a chilled shot glass of pickle juice, substituting the Old Crow with a dram of Jameson Irish Whiskey. This golden brown liquor is known for its slow burn and strong grainy character, which can be a bit too much for a whiskey novice. However, a cool glass of pickle juice smooths out the spiciness of any decent whiskey while also adding a bright hit of unexpected tanginess. 

The strength of the whiskey, which tends to overpower any beverage without a lot of acid, balances out the saltiness of the brine as well. In my opinion, the pickleback's unique characteristics are a marriage made in whiskey heaven, where the best elements of the whiskey and pickle juice complement each other perfectly. So while I don't claim to know the identity of that mystery woman from Florida who walked into Cunningham's bar on that fateful day in 2006, I'd like to raise a glass to her and Cunningham for helping bring the pickleback to the bar scene. 

As with straight whiskey, you can mellow it out further with a big ice cube in a glass.  If you want to lighten the intensity of your pickled whiskey drink, a pickle juice whiskey sour allows for the addition of sweetness to your cocktail. Boiling ½ a cup of pickle juice with equal parts granulated sugar creates the pickled syrup base for a whiskey sour with all the elements listed above but with a candied kiss. 

Pickle juice works spectacularly with vodka

Okay, so a shot of pickle juice with whiskey sounds like a great idea, but what if you're not particularly big on whiskey? Tasting Table has assembled a number of amazing pickle juice cocktail recipes that I've had the opportunity to try, and have made me a believer in the power of the pickle drink. If you are a vodka drinker, instead try a chilled glass of pickle-infused vodka. In this drink, you get a basic idea of the possibilities the fusion of these flavors can provide. Pour three parts vodka to pickle juice in a mason jar, chill in the refrigerator for three days, then garnish with a pickle wedge.

If you want to up the dill content, add a stalk of dill to the glass. Seafood pairs well with dill, so if you enjoy caviar with vodka, I would try this vodka hack to experience their complimentary flavor profiles. Is caviar too far out of your price range? I've tried this with smoked salmon and canned sardines, and they both work spectacularly well with this drink. If you want to get fancy like James Bond, a dill pickle martini with a sliver of pickle — shaken not stirred — should impress any date. Add spring onion to make a spring onion martini. Drinking your veggies has never been more enjoyable with this herbaceous pickled libation made with 1 ounce of vermouth in a glass with ice.

Pickle drink cocktails pair great with seafood

Since I've already gone there, let's talk about some ways I've discovered to make seafood sing with leftover pickle juice in a drink. This is going to sound weird, but hear me out. 

A fish sauce and pickle juice cocktail might sound repugnant, but if you employ fish sauce sparingly in something like a fisherman's folly cocktail — think of a few splashes of angostura bitters in an old-fashioned, for instance — you'll end up with an umami-laced cocktail that pairs well with sushi, pad Thai, or any Pan-Asian cuisine. A hint of citrus in the form of grapefruit juice and peel offers a beautifully balanced brine that comes off as bright and adventurous instead of overpoweringly fishy or dour. Here, 1 ounce of gin with an equal measure of saké provides the alcohol content, while matcha tea powder adds color and panache to a drink that tastes and looks much better than it sounds.

Not to be outdone, I think the classic bloody mary gets a fantastic seafood redux with clam juice and oysters blended into the classic recipe with pickle juice. As previously noted, seafood and dill are a match made in heaven, and the addition of a grilled crayfish or shrimp garnish will make you question why you've never tried this drink before. Is the seafood bloody mary a cocktail or an appetizer? As far as I'm concerned, it's the best combination of both.

Pickle drinks can be good for you

As it turns out, pickle drinks also have potential health benefits. According to a 2022 research paper in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, test subjects with severe liver damage — the symptoms of which include debilitating muscle cramps — were given pickle juice to see what effect it would have on their suffering. Researchers believed that the acid inherent in pickling brine would initiate a nerve response in the body that could shut down the pain of muscle cramps. They were apparently on to something, because 70% of their test subjects noted pickle juice ended their cramps quickly, versus another 40% of subjects who tried managing their pain with water.

Here's more proof that pickle juice can be good for you. The heavy salt content in the brine acts as an electrolyte energy boost, and while I don't recommend downing several pickleback drinks before a workout, it does make for a post-workout option. Pickle juice has the added benefit of providing hangover relief, so I enjoy my pickle drink cocktails knowing the worst part of my night out — the morning — is actually not going to feel that bad. 

Even if there's a slight fogginess, I know the hair of the dog, in this situation, actually does help to reduce the hangover blues. An alcoholic beverage that provides you with protection from inflammation and a hangover? Please, barkeep, take my money. 

It's easy to make your own

Another great thing about pickle drinks is they are easy to make at home, and have the added benefit of leaving you with homemade canned pickles. I have a stash of homemade pickle juice on hand for entertaining at home or when I don't want to fork over a premium for artisanally-handcrafted cocktails at my local bar. Water, distilled white vinegar, pickling salt, sugar, pickling spices, pickling cucumbers, fresh dill, and garlic are all anyone needs to pull together a classic dill pickle recipe. I make 2 pint-sized jars of pickles and save the juice from each jar for my own pickle drinks. I even use a few pickles to garnish my cocktails all fancy.

So, what's up with all these pickle drinks lately? What's up is that they not only offer a lot of versatility for professional or home mixologists, but they actually taste great. They're easy to make. They are unique and sure to be a conversation starter at your next dinner party or shindig. 

Not only do pickled drinks add creativity to your standard cocktail outing, but they also pair as well, or in my humble opinion, better than some wines with seafood — there's just an added layer of complimentary umami to otherwise fishy accompaniments you won't get from a lot of white wines. They're good for you and can help stave off hangovers and muscle cramps. So now that you know what's up, try them out.