By Jim Boyce | Some people think nothing of licking salt from their filthy hands, knocking back sub-par tequila and then sucking wafer-thin lime wedges—think nothing of it!—yet turn their noses up at the idea of the pickleback, essentially the same elements, namely, a shot of booze (whiskey, usually Jameson) plus a mix of saltiness and sourness (pickle brine). These tend to be the same people who drink whiskey and Coke while criticizing Chinese club-goers for mixing Chivas and sweet green tea, but that’s another topic.
In any case, a few years ago, in the interest of science, I asked Doug Williams of Boot, Bottle & Cigar in Beijing to do some pickleback tests that ultimately included baijiu. I realized that I never posted those notes, so here they are.
Note: Williams had no pickle juice—street cred loss!—so we went pedestrian and got a jar of Beaufor dills from April Gourmet. Bartender Lynch—now at Moonshine—and numerous customers witnessed to the proceedings. Let’s start from the beginning and work our way up to the baiju.
Jameson chased with pickle juice
The standard. We found the whiskey far too light for this punchy pickle juice and akin to a cuddly kitten getting crushed ‘neath a herd of stampeding buffalo. Next.
Jameson mixed with pickle juice, half-half
This emitted a slight pickled egg aroma. While the texture was acceptable, the juice overwhelmed the whiskey even more so, akin to that kitten ‘neath two herds of buffalo.
Jameson with salt and lime
We borrowed the Cuervo technique known to millions of students, sports bar regulars, and bachelor and bachelorette party attendees worldwide. The salt softened the whiskey, the lime absorbed the remaining boozy bite. It might not be as cool as pickle juice but it did the trick.
Jameson chased with Thomas Henry Ginger Beer
Williams decided to spice things up a bit. The ginger beer was light vis-a-vis the Jameson but provided a nice bite at the finish. Cleansing. This is what the parents of a picklebacker might drink when they’re too old for the real deal.
Jameson chased with candied ginger
Williams was on a ginger kick now. This was intriguing for several reason. First, it took the Jameson from sweet to heat, as that ginger kick punched into our taste buds. As someone said, and it might have been a voice in my head, “That’s got some attitude!” Second, I’ve seen ginger used in the some baijui cocktail recipes, so perhaps it might do well when that spirit is used for a pickleback.
Jameson chased with pickle juice / simple syrup
We returned to pickle juice, mixing three parts to one part syrup. That sweetness bridged the vanilla-y Jameson and the sour-salty pickle juice. This was a step closer to Pickletopia, though a touch too sweet.
We were now ready to apply some of this combos to baijiu, specifically Red Star erguoutou, which costs less than a buck for a small bottle. If the pickleback initially served as chaser for what some consider a harsh whiskey shot, what happens when we use it with a spirit people often compare to firewater, jet fuel and paint thinner?
Red Star baijiu chased with pickle juice
The baijiu easily tackled the pickle juice, though it was a bitter match than Jameson. Think cuddly kitten getting stepped on by a buffalo only slightly bigger than said feline. You know what I’m talking about.
Red Star baijiu chased with pickle juice / simple syrup
This one worked even better, the syrup again providing a booze-juice bridge and helping absorb the stronger aromas and flavors of the baijiu. It reminded me of this one time I took big fruity Napa Merlots to spicy hotpot and was surprised at how much those wines tamed the heat. Except different.
Red Star baijiu mixed with pickle juice / simply syrup
Like Church and State, orange juice and milk, and baijiu and fire, some things best be kept separate, and this is a good example. Like the Jameson-pickle juice combo, this one just doesn’t work.
And so ended that night’s experiments, with many possibilities for further exploration, particularly in terms of different kinds of baijiu, different kinds of pickle juice, and the ginger factor. I realize such tests go somewhat against the informal “beyond ganbei” theme of World Baijiu Day but, trust me, you will likely drink a lot slower, and almost certainly feel better the next morning, when chasing your booze with pickle juice.