Why Pickled Ingredients Are the Secret to Amazing Cocktails

Pickled mixers and garnishes can turn "ordinary" cocktails into something special.

Dilly Bloody Mary
Dilly Bloody Mary | Photo by France C.

The bright flavors of pickled ingredients aren't only suited to savory dishes...or, for that matter, to "dishes" in general. Clever mixologists know that pickled mixers and garnishes can turn ordinary cocktails into something special. Here's why you should add some pickles to your bar cart.

Pickle brine makes clear spirits sing.

Sometimes all you need to really spotlight the herbaceousness of a dry gin or the clean qualities of a well-made vodka is a mixer with plenty of acidity and a slight hint of sweetness...which is exactly what you'll get from pickle brine. Brine makes appearances in a number of clear-spirit cocktails; the olive juice used in dirty martinis qualifies as a brine, and pickle brine brings a hint of tang to many a Bloody Mary recipe. For a riff on another classic cocktail formula, try swapping out the lime juice in a gimlet for the brine used to pickle fruits like peaches or plums.

Dirty Martini
Photo by chanelleNo5.

The acidity of pickled ingredients highlights the natural sweetness of whiskey.

Sour ingredients in whiskey cocktails aren't a novel concept. Consider the classic whiskey sour, which combines whiskey, sugar, and a hearty dose of lemon juice. Try blending pickle brine with the lemon juice to produce a sweet-and-savory twist on this beloved libation. More recently, the "pickleback shot" has made its way onto bar menus throughout the United States. Allegedly invented in a Brooklyn dive bar during the mid-aughts, the pickleback shot is a self-explanatory sipper: a shot of whiskey (originally bourbon) immediately chased with a shot of pickle juice. The tart, salty, slightly-vegetal brine accentuates the caramel notes and inherent sweetness of the whiskey, making for an unexpected and delicious study in taste contrasts.

pickleback with shot of whiskey
Pickleback | Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Shrubs are a common sight at trendy cocktail bars.

Also known as a "drinking vinegar," a shrub is a beverage base dating back to the American colonial era. It consists of vinegar poured over berries and other fruits in a fairly-straightforward pickling style, with the liquid later strained away from the solids and mixed with sugar to create a syrup. This antique invention experienced a renaissance during the late 2010s, and cocktail bars all over the country now use housemade shrubs to flavor their artisanal drinks.

Because shrubs originated during the 17th century, they don't require any high-tech equipment to recreate at home. Berries, apples, pears, and plums prove especially well-suited to shrub-making, and you can also include spices and aromatics to develop a wholly-unique cocktail foundation.

Tart Apple-Ginger Shrub in a cocktail glass
Tart Apple-Ginger Shrub | Photo by Allrecipes. Allrecipes

Give these pickled cocktails a try

Pickle Martini

A typical martini receives a garnish of olives, but this variation swaps out the olives and brine for a pickle wedge and a dash of pickle juice.

Dick's Bloody Mary Mix

This ultra-savory Bloody Mary recipe gets a bright kick from dill pickle juice, which works in perfect cooperation with the tomato, Worcestershire sauce, and vodka.

Tart Apple-Ginger Shrub

Shrubs make an ideal DIY project, since they're just as customizable as they are simple. This version combines zingy Granny Smith apples with spicy ginger, resulting in a smooth and flavorful cocktail syrup.


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