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The Natural Philosopher guide to Picklebacks: what are they?

Updated: Jan 20

two people sit at a table clinking shot glasses

A Pickleback is a shot of spirit and a pickle brine chaser traditionally made with Bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of dill pickle juice. First created at Bushwick Country Club, in New York in 2006 by bartender Reggie Cunningham, the Pickleback rose to notoriety across bars around the United States before making its way further afield. It even became part of marketing campaigns by brands such as Jameson who pushed the concept with their Irish Whiskey. So what order do you drink the shots in? Well, you do the pickle on the back of the shot, hence the name. Another way to remember is clear before cloudy.

More often than not, Picklebacks would be found at dive bars and craft beer bars rather than high end cocktail bars, but at The Natural Philosopher, owner Josh Powell is championing the Pickleback with new and interesting flavour combinations.

Something of note is the difference between a jar of pickles in the US and a jar in the UK. In the US the brining process is often the means of lacto-fermentation with a touch of added sugar and spices. This means that the cucumbers are placed in jars with a 2-4% salt water solution and allowed to ferment for some time, before preservatives are added to halt that fermentation process. In the UK however, cucumbers are more often than not placed in jars of vinegar and citric acid which is far less pleasant to chase a shot of Bourbon with. When made correctly, a pickle brine chaser has the ability to both compliment and soothe the burn from the shot of alcohol.

Owner Josh saying cheers with a pickleback to the camera

Josh's obsession with picklebacks and pickles began around 6 years ago, where on a night out in Dundee, each bar he visited had their own dill pickle brines. Having sampled just how different they could be from venue to venue, this sparked his interest in the pickling process and lead to him putting picklebacks on the menus at his previous bars.

Pickles can be rather polarising with many being vehemently against gherkins, cornichons or pickled veg of any kind so there comes a problem when a big 8litre jar of pickles is emptied of brine before the veg. When not covered, the veg can go soft and even mouldy leading to a lot of waste. So Josh creates something he calls "cheater brines" as a means to bypass that wastage and reduce the overall time and cost of production.

For example; The Natural Philosopher's Traditional Pickleback, made with Four Roses Bourbon, takes just 20 minutes to create the brine instead of a few days. A bundle of fresh dill and coriander seeds sit in hot salted water for around 10 minutes to extract the flavour before apple cider vinegar and a touch of sugar are added and allowed to sit for a further 10 minutes. This is then strained and bottled ready to serve.

But our Hackney cocktail bar pushes the envelope further by offering 4 other flavoured brine and spirit combinations. The NP pickleback is perhaps our most famous, having been on the menu since the beginning. This features Dangerous Don Mezcal with a Beetroot & Chilli brine. Then we have the Seoul which is a combination of Soju, a Korean rice-based wine, chased by a Kimchi pickle brine. Fantastically, Chef Esther Choi created this exact same combination on an episode of Iron Chef. Great minds think alike!

A line up of the pickleback shots available at The Natural Philosopher

Team favourite at the moment is the Mexico which is a shot of Cantinero Blanco Tequila with a Lime & Jalapeño brine. Then a new star is born with the Pickleback of the Month which cycles through various spirits and flavours. The current one at time of writing is a shot of Avallen Calvados with a Honey & Apple brine.

Sorin goes in for a sip of his pickleback

At The Natural Philosopher, our love of picklebacks lead to us creating some world first's. Such as the world's first dessert pickleback which starred on one of our first pickleback lists. This featured Singani63 Grape Brandy and a poached pear and red wine brine. This chaser was sweeter and less pickle flavoured helping to convert many a pickle hater. We also created a membership called Pickleback Club which was the world's first pickleback delivery subscription. Every month members would receive a double pickleback of the month through their letterboxes with t-shirts, key-rings and info about the spirit brand and brining process. Unfortunately, it became a bit too popular for us to continue and the return on investment wasn't quite enough for us to be able to scale up. Maybe one day in the future we'll be able to bring it back but for now it sits as a memory of a fantastic community of people with great taste.

In London, the competition for best picklebacks is few and far between with most pickleback offerings consisting only of a traditional Bourbon and dill pickle combo and with few going to the effort of making their own brines. We only know of one other bar in London offering a list of curated picklebacks (we have to say they are very good), and that's Love Shack just around the corner from us. Having had their staff in raving about ours, the team there decided to create their own. They do say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and we're all for it if it helps to spread the gospel of just how good picklebacks can be!

But alas our delicious combos have people coming back time and time again and we've even an award to show for ourselves, having bagged the trophy for London's Finest Pickleback. This rather questionable looking trophy sits pride of place on the mantel in our bar as a reminder that we have the best picklebacks around. So if you've not yet tried one or just haven't tried ours, be sure to pop in to The Natural Philosopher and we'll cheers with you.

Picklebacks sit in shot glasses next to a trophy for London's Finest Pickleback

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