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A Brief History of the Irish Snug

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Though Irish pubs have been exported around the world, one very traditional Irish drinking concept is harder to find in modern pubs: the snug. Prior to the 1960s, Ireland’s drinking establishments were almost exclusively the domain of men, and no respectable woman could or would be seen drinking inside. It wasn’t a law, but it was the reigning social convention, and many bars wouldn’t let women in. But that doesn’t mean that Irish women never drank. They just did it in a slightly less conspicuous way: inside a small, screened-off room attached to the bar called the snug.

In general, Irish women largely drank at home, dispatching someone else (often, their sons) to bring back a jug of porter. Some even sat outside pubs waiting for their menfolk to come back out. But inside many Irish pubs of the 19th and early 20th century, there would be a snug where women—and anyone else who didn’t want to be seen having a nip—could enjoy their pints privately. The snugs—"confession boxes we’d call them," a pub regular recalls in Kevin C. Kearns’s Dublin Pub Life and Lore—An Oral History of Dublin’s Traditional Irish Pubswould have a small window for bartenders to pass drinks through, so no one could see the patron order. They also had locks so that they couldn’t be opened from the outside, giving whoever was inside almost total privacy.

Fans of the BBC’s Peaky Blinders might be familiar with the concept—the Shelby gang holds meetings in the Garrison Pub's snug, where they can wheel and deal out of public view. They were, however, one of the few public places that women could have a drink. In many bars, it was more expensive to buy a drink inside a snug, but for some, the privacy was worth it. 

A snug in a historic Dublin bar. Image credit: Ryans of Parkgate Street via Facebook

When the Irish police force, the Garda Síochána, was founded in 1922, a large portion of officers were teetotalers. "More than half the officers belonged to the Pioneers of the Sacred Heart, a total temperance organization," as Irish journalist Cian Molloy writes in his 2003 history The Story of the Irish Pub. "Such was the emphasis placed on sobriety among Ireland’s new police force after independence that from 1926 onwards, disciplinary action could be taken against any officer who 'while on or off duty, shows the result of consuming intoxicating liquor, the slightest departure from strict sobriety.'" The Garda might be able to sneak into a snug, though.

During the War of Irish Independence in Ireland, the Black and Tans (the UK police force fighting the Irish Republican Army) couldn’t be served in Dublin’s pubs. As one Dubliner recalled to Kearns in his oral history, "the pubs wouldn’t serve them in their uniform … they might be able to slip into a snug privately, dressed as if they were going to the theater or all that."

Men of the cloth, too, often frequented snugs. In Dublin Pub Life and Lore, Dubliner John Preston remembers that Father "Flash" Kavanagh, a local priest, was so fond of his drink that he’d rush through mass to get to the pub when it opened: "You’d see him in there with his red vestments and he’d go in right through the bar to a little back snug there … that was his berth."

However, not all snug activities were so rebellious. "The snug also played another social role," Molloy writes. "It was the place where the matchmaker was found. The matchmaker was usually a trusted old man who would discretely arrange marriages between the sons and daughters of local farmers and shop keepers."

Up until the 1960s and 1970s, women were largely not seen drinking in a public tavern. Even women who owned bars weren’t keen on having a female presence there. Mary Hyland, a bar owner in the Irish village of Ballacolla who died in 1996, didn’t approve of women drinking in her pub even when it became more commonplace. Her nephew, who took over the bar when Mary was in her 80s, says she wouldn’t serve women at all until her later years. "A few years before her death [at 83], when two women walked in and ordered pints, her reaction was 'What is the world coming to?'" he told Molloy.

But over time, as it became more socially acceptable for women to head to the bar for a pint, snugs began to disappear. Bars modernized by adding classier lounges where people of both sexes could acceptably order drinks. During the course of those pub renovations, many snugs disappeared. In an email to mental_floss, Molloy theorizes that "snugs started to disappear because they took up quite a bit of room—they were attached to the end of a bar, with only those in the snug having access to that end of the counter. Ged rid of the snug and more people can get to the bar."

You can still find snugs in some historic bars, though. Belfast’s Crown Bar, a historic landmark that opened in the early 19th century, has multiple. As does Ryan’s of Parkgate Street, a Dublin pub dating back to 1886. And there are several pubs across the world named The Snug, though not all of them actually have private snugs. On the bright side, women don’t have to worry about being seen drinking in public anymore, so few of us need a snug, anyway.

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Courtesy New District
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Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
Courtesy New District
Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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A Brief History of the Pickleback Shot
Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's sour. It's briny. For some, it's nauseating. For others, a godsend.

It's the pickleback shot, an unusual combination of drinking whiskey and pickle brine that has quickly become a bartending staple. Case in point? Kelly Lewis, manager of New York City's popular Crocodile Lounge, estimates she sells at least 100 pickleback shots every week.

Pickleback loyalists may swear by it, but how did this peculiar pairing make its way into cocktail culture? On today's National Pickle Day, we hit the liquor history books to find out.

PICKLEBACK HISTORY, AS WE KNOW IT

As internet legend has it, Reggie Cunningham, a former employee of Brooklyn dive bar Bushwick Country Club, invented the shot in March 2006. He was half bartending, half nursing a hangover with McClure's pickles, when a customer challenged him to join her in doing a shot of Old Crow bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As he nostalgically tells YouTube channel Awesome Dreams, "the rest is history."

Cunningham went on to introduce the pairing to more and more customers, and the demand grew so much that he decided to charge an extra dollar per shot, just for the addition of pickle brine. After that, the mixture spread like wildfire, with bars across the world from New York to California and China to Amsterdam adding "pickleback" to their menus.

THE PICKLEBACK'S UNCLEAR ORIGIN

Two shot glasses topped with small pickles.

Neil Conway, flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sure, Cunningham may have named it the pickleback shot, but after reviewing mixed reports, it appears pickle juice as a chaser is hardly novel. In Texas, for example, pickle brine was paired with tequila well before Cunningham's discovery, according to Men’s Journal. And in Russia, pickles have long been used to follow vodka shots, according to an NPR report on traditional Russian cuisine.

Unfortunately, no true, Britannica-approved record of the pickleback's origin exists, like so many do for other popular drinks, from the Manhattan to the Gin Rickey; it's internet hearsay—and in this case, Cunningham's tale is on top.

SO, WHY PICKLES?

Not sold yet? Sure, a pickle's most common companion is a sandwich, but the salty snack and its brine have terrific taste-masking powers.

"People who don't like the taste of whiskey love taking picklebacks because they completely cut the taste, which makes the shots very easy to drink," Lewis told Mental Floss. "Plus, they add a bit of salt, which blends nicely with the smooth flavor of Jameson."

Beyond taste masking, pickle juice is also a commonly used hangover cure, with the idea being that the salty brine will replenish electrolytes and reduce cramping. In fact, after a famed NFL "pickle juice game" in 2000, during which the Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree weather (with the Eagles crediting their trainer for recommending they drink the sour juice throughout the game), studies have seemed to confirm that drinks with a vinegary base like pickle juice can help reduce or relieve muscle cramping.

WAYS TO PARTAKE

While core pickleback ingredients always involve, well, pickles, each bar tends to have a signature style. For example, Lewis swears by Crocodile Lounge's mix of pickle brine and Jameson; it pairs perfectly with the bar's free savory pizza served with each drink.

For Cunningham, the "Pickleback OG," it's Old Crow and brine from McClure's pickles. And on the more daring side, rather than doing a chaser shot of pickle juice, Café Sam of Pittsburgh mixes jalapeños, homemade pickle juice, and gin together for a "hot and sour martini."

If pickles and whiskey aren't up your alley, you can still get in on the pickle-liquor movement with one of the newer adaptations, including a "beet pickleback" or—gulp!—the pickled-egg and Jägermeister shot, also known as an Eggermeister.

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