Pickle backs, more a ritual than a real drink category, have usually been confined to hipster bars, where the odd but refreshing pairing of a shot of Jamesons Irish whiskey and some bracing pickle brine is consumed with theatrics and gusto. Like many bartender shot rituals, however, this one occasionally gets a fancier treatment.
One worth mentioning is in play in Portland, OR, at Oso Market + Bar, a European style cafe bar, restaurant, and wine and food shop, specializing in Spanish style food tweaked for Pacific Northwest sensibilities.
In addition to being a big seller of Spanish vermouths, Oso also proudly offers a series of pickle backs on the menu: all new, house-made and creative. Owner Colin Howard says that after finding themselves with lots of excess brine as a result of various pickling creations made in the kitchen, he and others on the Oso staff tried a taste, then another, and then another. They loved how refreshing and different they tasted, depending on the recipes used to pickle each fruit or vegetable. Strawberries, pears, fennel, cucumbers, and more were made for service with meals, using different recipes: fruit brines were lighter, likely made with rice vinegar and some added sweetness, while the cucumber would be more robust and traditional with juniper and more assertive spices.
The result: rather than throwing out the excess the brine, they created the pickle back menu, with pairings that include George Dickel Rye or Beefeater Gin with cucumber brine, Flor de Cana añejo rum with strawberry back, Krogstad Aquavit with fennel back, Botanist Gin with plum back, and Powers Irish Whiskey with pear back.
Howard says the pickle back pairings have developed a cult audience. Some folks bring out-of-town guests directly to Oso on the way from the airport or come in with friends with great enthusiasm. The pickle back menu has become a sort of “Wait until you see what they serve” approach that any operator would envy. Howard says it works particularly well because the brines are much less assertive than standard pickle brines, and each one is distinctly different both alone and in pairings. Even though the idea is an outlier, it’s fun, unique and something that works on many levels: culinarily creative, drink category reinvention, development of a following, and the inevitable benefit of attracting new guests via word of mouth. Whatever your previous view on pickle backs, perhaps as a frat boyish ceremony or late night ritual, Oso’s idea while make you rethink it.