A Guide to Taking Shots Across America

The shot is a universal symbol for messy nights out and morning headaches, but amongst bartenders it's also a ritual that expresses camaraderie and appreciation. From "Snaquiris" to tequila, here is a guide to America's shot-taking traditions.

map of bartender shot rituals illustration john tebeau

Think you’ve outgrown the shot? Your bartender certainly hasn’t. Even in this golden age of cocktails, with its bespoke ice, numerous shake techniques and sophisticated spritzers, the shot endures. And it does so with style.

While shots have long been an essential part of industry ritual, there’s no cross-country standard—rather, the pour of choice varies by city, even season. The intent, however, remains the same: to boost camaraderie amongst staff or offer a handshake of sorts to industry guests and regulars at the bar. Where a row of shot glasses once indicated a night to forget, when lined up for the evening’s staff or beloved patrons, the shot is an indicator of so much more than getting wasted: it’s a welcome, a thank you and group therapy in one tiny vessel.

At 1 a.m. on Saturday at Pouring Ribbons, in New York, you might find bartender Troy Sidle mixing a round of Snaquiris—shot-sized daiquiris—for his staff and a favorite regular he calls Mr. Saturday Night. Somewhere in San Francisco a manager might be calling for Whiskey Jammers or pouring a line of buddy beers, while Kansas City’s bartenders are doing “stigis” of Del Maguey Vida out of clay copitas.

A semi-sneaky, mid-shift shot is the closest thing there is to a national bartending  ritual. In Houston, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle, they call it a “safety meeting”—traditionally a stoner term used as a synonym for smoking weed.

“When called for—usually during the rough patches throughout a shift—[it entails] dropping what you’re doing and prioritizing hospitality/service second and staff first,” says Seattle’s Jay Kuehner, “typically with a shot of something agave.”

Bartender Jennifer Colliau tells of encountering the tradition while guest bartending in Portland (where on-shift drinking is forbidden by law), and bringing it back with her to San Francisco. In Chicago and New York, there are midnight “staff meals”: “a shot of something inexpensive among the staff as a little togetherness thing before the last two hours of a shift,” says Sidle, who carried the tradition from Chicago to New York.

What gets tossed into a shot glass is also dictated by geography. Nearer to Mexico, tequila and mezcal are omnipresent—the bartenders’ amicable and admiring relationship with their border country’s spirits validated night and night again. For decades, rounds of Fernet Branca were the Bay area’s reconfirmation of a long history with the the bitter amaro, which persisted throughout the U.S. during Prohibition as a medicinal tonic.

Though the ritual remains the same, the liquid with which it’s practiced is constantly changing. Thanks to a quickly growing spirits market, America’s increasingly adventurous and educated bartenders all have strong opinions about what they shoot on and off the job. From Flaming Mai Tais to tequila, here’s your guide to America’s shot-taking traditions.

Seattle

“A ‘shot ‘n’ a beer’ is the common call, in which case some rye or bourbon and Rainier is the order,” says Seattle bar veteran Jay Kuehner (whose now-closed Sambar was one of the city’s brightest cocktail lights). “But what should the local shot be? Mezcal,“ he says, “…because it’s fuerte, it demands a lively encounter and it is something of a panacea to our doom ‘n’ gloom winters,”

Portland

Jeffrey Morgenthaler is arguably the biggest name in Portland bartending; at Clyde Common, he and his crew follow a shot of frozen Becherovka, a Czech herbal liqueur, with a cider back. His endorsement: “Hoo boy, it’s good.”

San Francisco

Jennifer Colliau of Small Hand Foods and the The Interval is all about the Whiskey Jammers: “a round of one-ounce shots for whatever group of people are sitting at the bar and the bartenders, bar-backs, managers, what have you.”

At Trick Dog it’s buddy beers, says Morgan Schick: “We’ll take a beer and pour it into as many small glasses as there are people behind the bar, and it makes for a refreshing break from work. We’ve had a series of small glasses that one of our bartenders keeps buying that we’ll mark with tape ‘for buddies.’”

Los Angeles

Alex Day of Honeycut keeps it low-proof and composed: “I don’t like to drink too much high-proof hooch during a shift, so if someone wants a little nip of something in celebration, or whatever, I usually pour a shot of amontillado sherry with a spice-heavy bitters, like Bitter Truth Aromatic.  It’s delicious, reviving, a tiny kick of booze, but not overwhelming where it throws me off my game.”

San Diego

Just north of the border, San Diego is a tequila town—a good tequila town. “Even the crappiest bars out here will have a really good tequila selection that you can’t even buy in a lot of states,” says Erick Castro of Polite Provisions.

Chicago

Jeppson’s Malört had its moment as a Chicago bartender’s handshake. “…but it’s just not very tasty,” says Mike Ryan of Sable. “We tend to lean toward bourbon, in my experience. We are a short drive from Louisville, so it helps that we have plenty of choice.”

Alex Bachman of Billy Sunday adds green Chartreuse to the mix. “If someone’s drinking green Chartreuse and a draft beer, it’s a good indication that they serve somewhere. “

New York

Zac Overman of Fort Defiance tells of The Hard Start, a shot of equal parts Fernet Branca and Branca Menta created by Damon Boelte. “It originated in the Frankie’s/Prime Meats family and spread to quite a few bars. It’s completely delicious: the Menta smooths out the Fernet and the Fernet keeps the Menta from being too cloying. It’s typically taken at the beginning of what’s going to be a busy shift.”

Pouring Ribbons is home to the Snaquiri. “We do a mixed shot that’s a mini daiquiri—called a Snaquiri,” says co-owner Troy Sidle. “And a bartender from Amor y Amargo is currently trying to come up with the perfect name for a mini Negroni shot.”

Washington, DC

DC’s a whiskey town, says Derek Brown, who owns several bars in the city, including The Passenger. Specifically, Old Overholt Rye: “It used to be Jameson, and then it switched to Old Overholt. My brother has an actual figure for this: over almost five years of The Passenger existing, we’ve poured over 6,000 bottles of Old Overholt, basically all to industry. He did a quick calculation, and that would fill the entire bar with bottles.”

Houston

“Safety meetings come in all shapes and sizes, but when I’m working, safety meetings of mezcal are most common,” says Bobby Heugel of Anvil.

Kansas City

Ryan Maybee of Manifesto tells of a citywide love of Del Maguey mezcal.“Vida is the most common, and everyone has really gravitated toward doing “Stigis” (“stigibeu” being the customary Zapotec toast when drinking mezcal) out of the traditional copitas,” says Maybee. “Even some of the neighborhood bars that don’t necessarily geek out over cocktails have picked up Vida to satisfy the industry crowd.”

New Orleans

“We almost exclusively do shots of El Dorado five-year rum,” says Bradford Willingham of Cure. “It’s delicious, aged and cheap. Occasionally we’ll go low-proof, like Campari or Luxardo, but usually it’s straight for the El Dorado.”

Nashville

Whiskey and amari are the shots Toby Maloney sees at The Patterson House. “The age of the bartender has something to do with it. The younger bartenders are like: ‘Let’s do Rittenhouse!’ And the older ones are like: ‘Let’s do a low-proof amaro…’”

Miami

“Here in Miami, we drink all the time,” says Elad Zvi of The Bar Lab and Broken Shaker, “and we love mezcal.”

Atlanta

Atlanta’s staff drink of choice? Not exactly a shot, but a small glass of crushed ice, fruit and fire. “I see more Flaming Mai Tais post-shift in the city than anything else,” says Julian Goglia of The Pinewood Tippling Room. “At The Pinewood, we’ve served so many that it eventually found a permanent spot on our menu. I’ve been with Miles Macquarrie at Kimball House while they made the entire staff a round of them as shift drinks on more than one occasion. It’s comical but awesome.”

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Heather Sperling is a writer, editor, consultant and curator. She spent four+ years as an editor at Tasting Table (and also developed TT's newest event concept, Open Market, the first of which featured 60 local producers, chefs and pastry chefs in Chicago in December 2013). Before all that, she spent three years eating and drinking across the country as the features editor of StarChefs.com. She has written for various publications, including Saveur, FWx, Plate Magazine, The Atlantic and Who's Hungry.

FROM AROUND THE WEB
  • gijyun

    Very nice piece, though I’m very sad to see Philadelphia missing from this list. The City Special (a can of cheap lager and a shot of even cheaper whiskey) is a $3 mainstay throughout the city, and can be found in the dirtiest dives up through finer dining establishments. It’s a cultural institution.

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  • Rob Mosley

    Can you guys tell Troy Sidle that a good name for a mini Negroni shot would be a “Negronita”? Cheers…