A few years ago, I was with a former coworker at our preferred happy hour spot when he plopped two shot glasses in front of me. I recognized that one was filled with whiskey, a liquor I've basically been drinking since the womb. The second was less familiar - it was murky, greenish, and had particles floating in it. And...seeds, maybe?
"It's pickle juice," he explained. "You chase the shot of whiskey with it." When I stared back at him with horror, he said, "Do you like whiskey? And do you like pickles? Then trust me."
I did, and I'm glad. I don't know who figured out that the harsh burn that follows a swallow of whiskey is perfectly tempered by the taste of sour gherkin, but I owe them many thanks.
While the Russians have been mixing pickles and liquor for years, the rest of us have been slow to pick it up. In the time since I had one for the first time, the pickleback has become mainstream. Bartenders used to scoff at me when I ordered one, but now you can walk through Manhattan and find a bar with its own signature recipe at every corner.
Not every pickleback is equal. You may believe that it's just some booze and juice from a jar of Vlasics, but there are key flavor and texture notes that truly affect the quality of the cocktail. So how does one make a selection, given the paradox of choice? By process of elimination of course.
I am determined to find the best pickleback that this city has to offer. My search began in the East Village, because...well, that was where I happened to be drinking last weekend.
Atmosphere: 3.5/5, Bartender: 4/5, Whiskey: 5/5, Pickle juice: 4/5
This 14th Street bar is usually my go-to when I'm downtown and need a pickleback fix. At $5 a pop, you can't beat cheap. It's also just not a bad drink - they may give you a shot of house whiskey, but it's surprisingly smooth (and even comes from a real glass bottle). The pickle juice is good too, with a little bit of a bite to it that kosher dill fans will appreciate.
The venue is cool, with turn-of-the-century accents like iron chandeliers, and the small tables that line the wall across from the bar provide places to get cozy. The Belfry is narrow though, with only a small raised platform in the back that opens up for more standing room. It was pretty crowded here on a Friday night so we didn't linger too long. Which is another great thing about a pickleback - you can slam it and be on your way in seconds.
Atmosphere: 3/5, Bartender: 5/5, Whiskey: 3.5/5, Pickle juice 1/5
This is a pretty standard bar on Avenue A with a kitschy aesthetic and decent drink prices (for Manhattan). The bartender here was incredibly nice, considering the fact that the second we walked in my friend asked him to direct her to a different bar. Ours was a two-pronged mission: while I was looking for the perfect pickleback, she was searching for a place that she went to once when she was hammered that had "an upstairs with great '90s dance music".
We found neither of those things at Spotted Owl. The pickleback ($7) had came with less smooth whiskey than The Belfry's. To add insult to injury, the pickle juice was SWEET. Who in their right mind uses juice from bread-and-butter pickles to chase whiskey? Whoever came up with this pickleback recipe is a monster. I wanted to throw up everywhere.
Atmosphere: 5 pts, Bartenders: 3 pts, Whiskey: 3 pts, Pickle juice 4.5 pts
I once went on a first date here, specifically because the guy didn't want to pay for both alcohol and food. Crocodile Lounge (and its Brooklyn counterpart) provides a glorious service to patrons by giving out free pizza with every drink you buy. It's made in a brick oven in the back of the bar, right next to a row of skeeball machines that attract tournaments between a few neighborhood leagues every week. It's a big place, with tons of seating room at the bar, in booths, standing tables, and in two back rooms. There's also several arcade games, if you're in the mood for a little Dear Hunter-ing.
The pickleback here was the most expensive so far at $8. The whiskey was harsh, but the pickle juice was spicy. It was a nice differentiation from what I'm used to, and about one thousand times more preferable than that sweet shit I'd just swallowed. Paired with free pizza, it became a contender for the night's best recipe.
Atmosphere: 3/5, Bartender: 0/5, Whiskey: N/A, Pickle juice: N/A
On the way to our next venue, we paused outside of this place to take stock of the evening. I noticed the bar and suggested that we try it out. Unfortunately, I didn't notice the smirk on my friend's face as we walked inside. The Winslow didn't seem too bad; it was big, the crowd was diverse, and it didn't smell like body odor. All good signs.
"This seems cool," I said.
"Check out the bar," my friend said.
And then I noticed the bartender, who was my former roommate. The last time I'd seen him was when he was moving out of our apartment in the middle of January, having given us no warning of his departure after he'd spent the prior four days secretly bringing all of his stuff to a friend's house while we were at work.
"Oh, fuck no," I said, and walked right back out.
My friend apologized halfheartedly when we were back on the street. "I knew he worked there, and I felt like playing a trick on you."
Atmosphere ??, Bartender ??, Whiskey ??, Pickle juice ??
At three picklebacks (and five vodka-sodas) deep, I might as well have been as sightless as the namesake of this place when I got here. I don't remember a damn thing about this bar, let alone what my shots tasted like. I described the pickleback in my phone as "comparable to Belfry, but $8". I have no idea why the price for them increased with each bar I went to. The whole reason for a pickle juice chaser is that the whiskey you're drinking is cheap. The entire bottle of liquor probably cost $8. Where do these places get off charging this much? If I had ordered a single shot of whiskey, and a single shot of pickle juice, would it still have been so expensive? Is it the act of combining the two that increases their value? What explanation is there for charging that much money for something that I used to put into a flask and chug in the bathroom in my youth? Because yes, I used to have one flask for whiskey and one flask for pickle juice, and while this wasn't my proudest phase in my life it was definitely my most thrifty.
I digress. This pickleback was probably fine.
EAST VILLAGE WINNER: The Belfry
It's clear that the pickleback at The Belfry is the night's champion. Not only was it the cheapest, but it was made with the best quality ingredients in a place that I didn't despise. I salute them for their dedication to providing customers with both liquor and prices that don't make me sick to my stomach.
This is a big city, and my search continues. I've been told you can get a $3 pickleback in Bushwick - I'm up for the challenge.