"It's always older bartenders who ask for them and then we do them on request, but we don't usually have the general public ordering them."
James McGraw, bartender at Fallow Cafe in Manchester's student quarter, is talking to me about the pickleback. A whiskey shot followed by pickle brine, the sour drink has become popular in New York in recent years. The name is believed to have been invented in Williamsburg back in 2006, when bars in the Brooklyn neighbourhood began to offer Old Crow bourbon and pickle brine made by local brand McClure's. The thinking behind the odd pairing is that the brine neutralises the burn and taste of the alcohol.
As our photographer looks on in disgust, I down the whiskey and brine shots McGraw offers me. I'm surprised—I rather enjoy the taste, despite not usually liking whiskey. Pickle brine, on the other hand, I can't get enough of. Essentially vinegar infused with herbs and spices such as garlic, dill, peppercorns, and chilies, it's a well-known hangover tonic back in my native Poland.
In search of official confirmation of pickle brine's head fuzziness-curing properties, I fire off an email to the Polish consulate in Manchester, a city with a sizable Polish immigration. Unfortunately, I get no response and a phone call proves no more fruitful. But when I make enquiries with some young Manchester Poles, I find out I'm not the only one keen on the stuff.
"Pickle brine has got lots of natural vitamin C," claims Żaneta Jamrozik, a student from Krakow now living in Manchester. "To us, it's the same as having a cup of tea in Britain. But what makes it good for a hangover is the sourness. It kills the horrible aftertaste of any alcoholic mix and gives you an energetic kick."
Mikołaj Majchrzak, who has lived in Britain for over a decade and works as a security guard at Selfridges tells me, "alcohol removes potassium from your body and pickle juice is a good source of potassium—it's sour and salty."
"I discovered pickle juice when I started drinking vodka as a teenager," he continues. "I didn't like vodka cocktails so I started having shots. Some people don't need to chase vodka with anything but I did and I always preferred chasing them with food. Slices of tomato or cubed cheese—whatever, really. Then someone recommended pickles as a good chase. I tried them and it became my favourite. I wasn't able to drink vodka without them. One day, I woke up after a night of drinking and there was half a pickle jar left. I ate them and then I had the juice too and I started feeling much better."
"Basically you drink and eat all night," concurs Jamrozik. "Nobody ever drinks on an empty stomach. Snacks like pickled cucumbers, marinated mushrooms, and ham are of most importance—hence we are able to drink vodka straight from the glass or by the bottle. Pickled juice is like an easy transition: you're no longer able to chew but you're still able to swallow!"
Slavic countries such as Poland aren't the only ones with a culture of combating hangovers with pickles. In Germany, pickled herring is believed to do the trick while in Japan, umeboshi or sour plums are consumed to help.
In Poland, the tradition comes from pickling vegetables at home.
"Most people live in blocks of flats, but even so, for every flat there's a basement," explains Majchrzak. "People would eat pickles with everything so it made sense to make your own, especially back in communist times. I think this is where it started. There were no 24/7 shops then so everyone relied on their stores in the basement and the pickle juice was an easy solution to both, having something to drink with the vodka and the day after when you weren't feeling so good."
"My parents always made barrels of sauerkraut so that's always been my favourite for after drinking," Jamrozik says. "But I don't know any British person who does. I mean, British people do like pickles, but as a hangover cure, I think it goes back to the culture of drinking. Brits like to dilute their spirits. For me, that makes them too mild and tasteless. Poles like them straight so you can really feel the kick and then you counteract that with the sour kick from the pickle juice. But on a hangover, you do have to drink it slowly otherwise it can make you feel a bit sick. I always think it means you needed it and are recovering though."
When I ask bartender McGraw if he'll give the pickle juice remedy a go next time he's hungover, he shakes his head no: "As a pickleback, it's a good novelty thing but I wouldn't really drink pickle juice out of choice."
It seems then, in Britain at least, pickle juice probably isn't going to put Berocca out of business anytime soon.
All photos by Akash Khadka.