The pickleback is one drink trend that I've eyed suspiciously for some time. I've experienced this potable zeitgeist on several occasions, though never intentionally. You see, the Pickleback is rarely a drink you'd deliberately order. It's something handed to you at 2am and, well, everything seems like a good idea at that time of night, right?
The pickleback - for the uninitiated - is merely a shot of whiskey served with a "back" (or chaser) of pickle brine. The drink is the antithesis of high-end mixology – the answer to a night of imbibing ambrosial juleps, or kummel-laced alcoholic sorbets. Often the quality of the whiskey is inconsequential, with pickle juice there to mask the burn.
Partnering Michelin-starred chef and founder of the Momofuku restaurant chain, David Chang, with Bulleit whisky and the task bringing back the pickleback might seem like seem like a zany idea. Chang, however, is a free-spirited Kentucky whiskey aficionado and something of an expert on pickles.
"[The pickleback] is like the hula-hoop. It makes no sense to me," explains Chang. "I don't think that it necessarily marries that well with bourbon ... I feel like I've had a lot to drink over the years working in the industry and whatnot. And I enjoy drinking. But I don't want quantity – I want quality. I really do."
The pickleback's origins are somewhat clouded – but being a beverage ordered in seedy bars in the small hours of the morning, this should come as little surprise. The beverage was popularised by dive bars like the Bushwick Country Club Williamsburg in New York's Brooklyn district, circa 2007.
The pickleback has since established itself in bars around Australia – especially Americana-inspired dives like Sydney's Flinders Hotel and Melbourne's Beaufort, where they go through 10 litres of pickle brine per week.
Picklebacks at the Bushwick Country Club and the Beaufort are generally served with Old Crow – a whiskey brand that, though being around for a long time, is hardly renowned for its high quality. Chang's spin on the Pickleback which he recently unveiled at the launch of Bulleit rye in Sydney is designed to be sipped with quality whiskey rather than downed, and does away with the traditional dill and vinegar-based pickle juice.
"My evolution of the pickleback calls on the preservation of citrus, especially lemons and oranges. Citrus and bourbon have been dancing with each other for years – look at the longevity of the Old Fashioned. Why would I mess with that awesome flavour combination?"
As a chef, Chang abhors waste, and the simplicity of his recipe means that bartenders who bin leftover citrus at the end of each shift are able to turn this rubbish into something useful.
"It's something that bars are going to throw away, so why not put in minimal work – literally – to make something that's not just edible but delicious, I think," Chang says. "The smokiness of bourbon plays so well with the acidity and sourness of the citrus that it makes sense to pickle citrus."
Chang's basic preserved lemon recipe is blessedly simple. Slice your lemons into wheels or wedges and coat with a mix of two parts salt to one part sugar. There's no cooking involved and no extra liquid required, as moisture will be drawn out of the fruit to create to your brine.
Stored in an airtight container after a couple of weeks, the pickle brine with be ready to be siphoned off. At this stage you should cut the brine with water and a little more sugar to taste. Finely chop the peel of your preserved lemon and mix this into your pickle juice.
Pour yourself a nip of your favourite American whiskey and chase with your lemon pickleback.