In Praise of Pickle Juice and Probing Questions

Julia Bainbridge, the author of a new drinks book, talks brine, Atlanta and Nashville spots, and why your bartender might know more than Instagram does

Photo: Alex Lau

Three beverages from Bainbridge’s new book, Good Drinks.

When the journalist Julia Bainbridge moved to Atlanta to cover food for Atlanta magazine in 2016, she told herself, “I’m going to go this city with no preconceived notions.” Although she grew up in Maryland and has family from Virginia, she hadn’t spent much time farther South—and so she allowed the city to open itself up to her. She discovered surprising flavors and sights, including in the diverse restaurants along Buford Highway, and at her beloved Kimball House. 

photo: Theodore Samuels
Julia Bainbridge.

In her new book, that same spirit of doing away with preconceived notions is apparent. Before she inked her book deal for Good Drinks: Alcohol Free Drinks for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason, Bainbridge noticed a trend of alcohol-free mixed drinks popping up on menus. She started talking to a lot of people who had cut back on alcohol for various reasons, and she dug into her own reasons for not drinking. “Maybe they’re just not drinking this week,” she writes in the introduction. “Or this night. Or this hour. (I know plenty of people who switch back and forth between alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks throughout the course of a Saturday night out.)”

Here, the author shares more about her new book, tips for traveling with an open mind, and the refreshing possibilities of brine:

You live in New York now—what do you miss about living in the South?

I miss porches. I miss that extension of the home. People will hold court on their porch, drinks flowing, pets lying around, maybe kids if the couple has them, and people calling upon you throughout the day. Maybe you’ve got a stack of books out there. It’s the outdoor living room—I think that’s charming, I think it’s chic, and I miss that.

Any favorite restaurants in Atlanta to shout out?

Kimball House, that’s the first place I’m going to tell anyone who’s never been. The guys who own it are such good guys and they’re doing things right, and deliciously. Also Buford Highway in general, all the restaurants out there—there are so many kinds of cuisines. 

I love the Korean food scene in Atlanta. One of my favorite places is JS Kitchen by Jang Su Jang in Duluth. It’s a banchan shop that serves, among many other dishes like adzuki bean porridge, the best green onion kimchi and myulchi bokkeum [stir-fried anchovies] I’ve ever had. The woman who owns it grows produce herself. That’s the way I could eat always—rice and these tasty, salty tidbits.

Salty, briny flavors show up a lot in your new book. Pickle juice plus seltzer sounds refreshing, if you’re into that kind of thing.

My Southern grandfather, the Virginia one who lived in Maryland, we loved drinking pickle juice together. And everyone else thought it was weird. He was a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins and one of the obits that was written when he passed called him the Jacques Cousteau of the Cerebral Cortex.

Okay, he was a brain genius, and he liked pickle juice.

Oh yeah. He had a Southern palate. There was a lot of salted ham and biscuits and pickles. He had a bit of a sweet tooth, so we were usually drinking the brine from bread and butter pickles. As I explored this world of pickledom, I realized the more savory and funky, the better. With seltzer, the funkiest kimchi is what I want. I’ve seen a riff on a Bloody Mary with kimchi juice. But if you’re going for just brine and seltzer, you’re going for funk and salt, and you want the bubbles to just assault the palate, to really pop. Think about it. Come in on a hot day, pour a little brine out of your pickle jar. Part of what you crave is salt. And then that cold, effervescent feeling. Squeeze of lime on top.

photo: Alex Lau


There’s a surprising lime, tonic, and coffee recipe in the book, from Eduardo Guzman at Mission and Market in Atlanta.

Espresso and tonic is a thing. And then lime can give it this tropical note. But what I love about the recipe in the book is it’s leveled up just a little bit—with bitters. A nice drink for fall, and it helps move coffee into the evening time.

Tea also plays a major role in the book. You know how important tea is to the South…

One time I was at McCrady’s in Charleston, and I remember getting to a duck course. A rich, gamey dish that was paired with a beautiful Lapsang souchong tea. The man sitting next to me, also dining alone, caught a whiff and asked if he could have the tea with his meal instead. There’s a lot to be said for skipping an alcoholic drink just for this round, because in that moment, the tea was a superior pairing. 

As far as good teas that are well sourced, Henrietta Lovell from Rare Tea Company works directly with a lot of farmers. She’s the real deal. Another brand I enjoy is Smith Teamaker in Portland. They have a drink in my book and they make really beautiful tea. And then there’s good old Harney & Sons. I drink English Breakfast.

Thank you for sharing that Nectar of the Gods recipe with us. Any tips for trying out this citrus-and-brine combo?

You can really customize this. Sometimes people hold too closely to a recipe, but there’s room to play with other kinds of brines. Good is in the mouth of the beholder. Trust your own taste. Plus, we all need some fun. Roll up your sleeves, get in the kitchen. 

That idea of fun, play, and creativity is a big part of your writing. I loved this moment in the book where you admitted sometimes you turn off the music and just drive and let your mind roam.

On my podcast, the Lonely Hour, I talked to the author of Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, Manoush Zomorodi, and she found that our brains’ default mode just lights up when we allow our minds to go wherever they want. That’s when you crack a problem. 

For my book, the trip was about consumption, about casting a wide net, tasting and talking to people. And then on those drives, like from Nashville to wherever, and in between, I started to reflect, to organize, to say, okay what from Nashville makes sense? I figured out the shape I wanted the book to take.

What’s a favorite Nashville spot you discovered?

A place that didn’t ultimately make it into the book, but that I love, is the High Garden tea room. The front of it is an apothecary with all these teas and roots, and in the back there’s a kombucha bar with mixed drinks.

It’s so important to pound the pavement, do the research, and for me, to drive across the country and not just call places. There’s only so much you can get from an Instagram feed. There’s only so much you can discover when you’re researching a place from afar. There are gems out there that haven’t been written about—find them. Ask a couple chefs or a bartender where else you should try. What spots do locals love? Ask.

Lightning round. Ready? Prediction of any drink trends for 2021?

More CBD beverages.

What stereotype of the South do people get wrong?

That the slowness of the South has to do with anything other than being pleasant and polite.

What stereotype is right?

Southerners gossip.

Biscuits or cornbread?

I could never. Do I have to? I’m going to pick one because I have to—cornbread.