by Madison Kahn
Stu Waters loves pickles. The Midwesterner started experimenting with food in college and upon graduating, decided to leave his philosophy degree behind for a culinary education. Waters quickly found his niche in fermentation and a romance with pickles ensued. Claiming pickles are "half art, half science," Waters improvised with various recipes for years until he found what he feels is the ultimate ratio of spicy and tart, and applied his findings to form Stu's Pickles, a Chicago-based company that uses farm-fresh cucumbers from Hudsonville, Michigan—"the salad bowl" of the Midwest.
A self-proclaimed "freak for vinegar," Waters could not waste the tasty brine leftover at the end of the pickle-fermenting process. Though he didn't have a problem drinking the pickle elixir straight, the former bartender decided its best use would be in a Bloody Mary. We caught up with Waters to get the story behind his This is Bloody Mary mix, which we tried at CH HQ and liked as a convenient way to make the classic cocktail nice and spicy without having to stock all of the ingredients (though we did add even more pickle juice for taste).
Why Bloody Marys?
I used to bartend—because all philosophy majors are alcoholics—and Bloody Marys were my specialty. Mine always included a lot of pickle juice. So when my college friend Rudi and I were sitting in a bar one day, drinking a terrible Bloody Mary, we decided that we could do much better than this.
How did you make your mix?
I was terrified of making the same old Bloody Mary mix. That's when I thought of the idea to remove the tomato juice. That allowed us to avoid preservatives and make it really unique. I think a good Bloody Mary should always be chewy. So the goal was to create texture. Part of it is the pickle juice, which gives the drink a tart-spicy mix with a hint of cucumber. Then there are the classic ingredients and herbs. We use two kinds of chili peppers to give it different levels of heat. Then just salt and pepper!
Our mix is unique because of the pickles, their concentration and complexity—and the fact that we removed the tomato juice. Putting tomato juice in the mix—like you see in grocery stores—gives you a watered down flavor that just isn't what it should be. I wanted to create something that tasted like it came straight from the best bartender—all people have to add is the fresh tomato juice and vodka.
What do your pickles add to this Bloody Mary mix?
A lot. If you don't have good pickle juice, you wont have a good Bloody Mary. And if you don't have a good balance in the pickle juice, you're doomed from the beginning. I hate a pickle that just is one note—too spicy or too tart. My love for food has led me to believe that any particular ingredient has to be just as good as the whole. Pickles, in my opinion, start off tart, then get spicy, then you taste the herbs. There's not just one line to it. Same with a Bloody Mary. They call it the most complex cocktail out there because there are so many layers of flavor inside. The drink evolves from beginning to end.
Do you put any special ingredients in yours?
I make Bloody Marys with different spirits, like white whiskeys, gin, and aquavit, this Scandinavian thing, which adds a cool spiciness I really dig on.
You can purchase Stu's Pickles' This is Bloody Mary mix directly from their website. Images courtesy of Stu's Pickles.