I've been avoiding Gibson martinis most of my drinking life. That's largely because those cocktail onions look like alien fish eggs and taste like my gym towel. But that changed when I had one at Rafiki Bistro (1682 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617.661.7810), where manager Simone Nakhoul insisted I try the onions he's been pickling in house with thyme, rosemary, sage, coriander, and brown sugar. Like many local bartenders, he's looking toward pickling as the next bartending frontier. The folks at Henrietta's Table (One Bennett Street, Cambridge, 617.661.5005) are pickling vegetables from their rooftop garden and using pickled radishes as a martini garnish - and once they're in season, they'll pickle watermelon rinds, too. And spots like Deep Ellum (477 Cambridge Street, Allston, 617.787.2337) and East Coast Grill (1271 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, 617.491.6568) are using pickled green beans or okra in their Bloody Marys.
Of course, the idea of combining pickles with drinking is nothing new. Just ask the Russians, for whom vodka and pickles are regular conspirators in inebriation. But Boston's creative pickling options have taken off in the last year. It's just an extension of the pervasive infusions movement, says bar chef Ben Brenner of 51 Lincoln (51 Lincoln Street, Newton, 617.965.3100). "It's essentially the same thing, just with salt." The bartenders at 51 Lincoln are pickling everything they can get their hands on, including nectarines, cranberries, honeydew, and ginger. They're even pickling garlic scapes, the slightly less pungent stems of the garlic flower, which feature in the Great Escape ($10), a gin martini made with green chartreuse.
"As of right now, we're doing stuff with midsummer fruits," says Brenner, who employs both hot and cold pickling techniques. "Hot pickling is the same as brining something," he explains. "It depends on how tough the vegetable is. Something like green beans, you can do a hot pickle because they have a tough skin. Something soft like nectarine, it's better to do a longer cold pickle." For the latter, you make the brine with sugar, salt, and whatever other ingredients you want and let it soak, anywhere from days to years.
At Bar 10 (10 Huntington Avenue, Boston, 617.424.7446) and Turner Fisheries (10 Huntington Avenue, Boston, 617.424.7425), Michael DeCanio is pickling red onions in house for their Gibsons. Red onions are pretty strong to begin with, so they retain a bite that you won't get from regular bar onions. "It's nice because it's a fresher product," says DeCanio. "It's not something that's been sitting in a jar for a long time. From a cocktail standpoint, it adds that great pickling flavor that you don't normally get from a Gibson."
We noted an early incarnation of the trend last year, when a cocktail named the Green Mile ($13) appeared on the drink list at Alibi (215 Charles Street, Boston, 857.241.1144). It's made with Hendrick's gin, Sriracha, and pickle juice from Grillo's Pickles, the local pickle vendor helmed by Travis Grillo. He got his foothold in the brine biz selling pickles made with his 100-year-old Italian family recipe (which employs distilled white vinegar and grape leaves) out of a streetside cart. Now they're being sold in Whole Foods and used at bars like the West Side Lounge (1680 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617.441.5566). "A lot of people are starting to experiment with bourbon and drinking pickle juice," he says. "I'm seeing this whole thing where they use my pickles as garnishes; my green tomatoes are going in Bloody Marys. I've even heard of people mixing the juice with seltzer water so you have like a sparkling, pickle-flavored drink." On Saturday, August 28, he'll team up with the West Side for a pickle-themed party at the restaurant.
But wait: what's that he said about drinking pickle juice with bourbon? "Pickle chasers are amazing; it kills the burn," Grillo says. This boozy, briny one-two punch - a shot of booze (often bourbon) chased by a shot of pickle juice - is known as a pickle back. I had my first taste a couple of months ago at Great Scott (1222 Commonwealth Avenue, Allston, 617.566.9014). Jesse Sherman, a bartender there, is such an acolyte that he sometimes brings his own juice with him when he goes out. At Deep Ellum, he says, they've had to cut him off because they didn't want to run out of juice and have their pickles dry up.
And you thought your liver was the only thing getting pickled at the bar.