THERE ALWAYS HAVE been pickles. Before the “Iliad,” before the pyramids, possibly even before humans invented reading, ancient Mesopotamians figured out that putting their vegetables in salty brine made them last longer. So it is surprising to me that, apparently, despite the pickle’s longstanding and even coevolutionary relationship with humankind, it took us this long to start mixing pickle juice in our alcohol. (Medieval Russians supposedly drank pickle juice as a hangover cure, but they did not think to mix it with their vodka.)
There are two kinds of pickle juice — vinegar, which just becomes a more flavorful kind of vinegar when it is used for pickling, and salt brine, which, in the process of pickling your vegetables, becomes probiotic. Both have their cheerleaders as far as health claims go. There are people who swear that drinking vinegar is an electrolyte powerhouse, that it lowers blood sugar, that it helps you lose weight, and that the acetic acid in vinegar is a disinfectant, which helps to kill unhelpful bacteria.
Conversely, lacto-fermented salt pickle brine is full of wee organisms that are supposed to do everything including, well … lowering blood sugar, helping you lose weight, et cetera. Point is: Either way, you should be drinking your brine.
And for those who complain that you don’t like sweet drinks, pickle juice sits at the other end of the flavor spectrum, and offers an option besides bitterness or straight booze.
Not all brine is created equal, of course. Steer clear of that radioactive green liquid surrounding those sad industrial pickles — it’s full of dyes and, ironically, preservatives. Save the liquid from your expensive artisanal pickles, or the ones you perhaps made from all those imperfect produce boxes you panic-ordered during the pandemic.
You also can buy pickle juice as a commercially available drink, in bottles or cans, sometimes marketed as a mixer. There’s even an energy drink called Pickle Juice that might or might not improve your athletic performance but definitely will get you looks on the soccer field.
Both vinegar and brine are delicious in cocktails. Vinegar brine is pretty tart, and a little goes a long way as a mixer. Lacto-fermented pickle brine is more subtle and, in my opinion, a bit easier to drink from a glass, so build your beverage with your brine in mind.
If you wish to craft cocktails from your pickle juice, you have some options. The pickletini, which went viral on your various social media watering holes as the drink of the moment earlier this year, is a pickle-based drink at its most simple: vodka and pickle juice, shaken or stirred, with a pickled anything as garnish (I suggest an olive or a mini-gherkin).
A Pickle Shot is tequila and pickle juice, shaken together, then poured into a shot glass and downed in one go. For something more sippable, convert that into a pickle juice margarita. You even can mix vinegar and lactic brine for this — the lactic brine rounds out the flavor, while the vinegar adds the sharp bite you’d normally get from lime.
If, after a long day at the office, you need both a relaxant and a snack, you could have a pickleback shot, which is simply a shot of whiskey, neat, with a pickle juice chaser. This was “invented” in 2006 at the Bushwick Bar in Brooklyn, where it was made with Jameson, but I’d suggest you go with a smoky or peaty Scotch such as Lagavulin — the combination brings out the meatiness in both.
And, might I add: By “pickles,” I don’t mean just “cucumbers preserved in brine.” Practically any vegetable, or even fruit, can be pickled and turned into a far more complex version of itself — imagine a cocktail with pickled olives, pickled red onions or pickled strawberries (a thing!). You can make an Asian version of a pickleback with Suntory whiskey and the brine from kimchi (which is also a pickle!).
If any of you uncover some ancient recipe for pickles and eau de vie, something that balances the humors, perhaps, let me know. I will leave you with this factoid: Famous Florentine Amerigo Vespucci made his living in various ways, none of them involving going to sea, but instead supplying ships with things such as candles, vegetables and … pickles (which helped combat scurvy). And thus he is known historically, rightly or wrongly, as a “pickle-dealer,” the very pickle-dealer after whom our lovely country is named.