"Are you seriously going to drink that?" is not a phrase you often hear at a Portland dive. But on an unusually warm early spring evening at Church, everyone else crowded around the bar seems to be questioning my sanity as I stare down two shot glasses: a boot filled with Evan Williams bourbon, and a glowing, cloudy burst of salty, savory housemade pickle brine. Behold the pickleback, the wonderful cheap-booze-and-vinegar-chaser combination that has been a New York staple since a Bushwick bartender coined the name in 2006 and started slinging pickle juice as a way to mask the flavor of lower-shelf whiskey.
Picklebacks started showing up around here in 2012, both on- and off-menu. Church serves both a standard version ($4), with tangy bread-and-butter brine that tasted a bit too much like a pickled Jolly Rancher, and a superior spicy pickleback enhanced with heavy doses of cayenne, habanero peppers, ghost chilies and red-pepper flakes.
At the Old Gold, it's just $1 for a shot of its weekly homemade brine to go with the whiskey of your choice—on a recent trip, I got Jameson and a sweet brine that could have used a little more bite and a little less sugar. Both Bonfire Lounge (2821 SE Stark St., 232-3704, bonfirepdx.com) and Sloan's Tavern will make one for $4 if you ask the right bartender, though Sloan's brine was so yellow it looked like Gatorade, probably comes straight from a Vlasic jar and resembles, in the words of my nurse friend, âUTI pee.â
The Woodsman Tavern (4537 SE Division St., 373-8264, woodsmantavern.com), for $7, offers a nip of Powers Irish whiskey and an excellent brine made by Picklopolis, and it goes down clean and neat, with no burn and a pleasing, refreshing aftertaste. (The spicy version just adds a splash of generic hot sauce, which is unnecessary.) That's the thing about the pickleback. Both the classy $7 Jameson pickleback at the Lost & Found and the remixed vodka version at Langano Lounge (1435 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 230-8990) will do the same thing: give you a buzz without the burn.
And isn't that what you always wanted? I mean, in life?