Before the cocktail, there was the shot. Or rather: the slug, as in the cowboy’s slug of whiskey, a quick knock of liquor of questionable provenance—liquid courage for the dusty trails. As drinkers evolved, we added flavors like sugar and bitters to that liquor, allowing for drinks that could be savored, not choked back. But somewhere along the way, the two cross-bred, creating the composed shot: essentially a one-ounce cocktail designed for easy drinking while expediting the inebriation process.
Not long into the cocktail Dark Ages—the era starting in the late 1960s that saw the rise of the singles bar and, with it, new drinks that relied on oversweet liqueurs and shelf-stable ingredients—composed shots made their first appearance on the scene. David Wondrich has traced that moment back to 1976, when the first Kamikaze (vodka, triple sec and lime juice) was served. It was a huge hit, and the shooter arms race began.
In their heyday, shooters made prolific use of liqueurs like Kahlua and Bailey’s that were popular at the time. Many were designed to appeal to senses other than taste, with hoot-worthy names like the Slippery Nipple and the Screaming Orgasm. They were layered, floated and set on fire. Some, like the Blow Job—which was meant to be picked up off the bar with one’s mouth and consumed hands-free—came with complicated rituals. All of them were sweet, strong and hangover-inducing.
Like the rest of that era’s cocktail canon, shooters were swept out the door by the craft cocktail revival. But unlike their full-sized cousins, shooters refused to go quietly into the darkness.
“There are no rules in shots.”
The shooter has remained a staple of youthful excess; sorority girls still stir up batches of Lemon Drops (once a full-sized drink itself), and in college bars around the country, sickly SoCo and lime shots are still a regular call. It’s gone beyond borders, too; one Filipino island is home to a bar called Cocomangas, whose “Still Standing After 15” shooters challenge (which includes a mix of shot types) has been taken by more than 40,000 people from 160 countries over the last 25 years.
Now, as modern bartenders have re-dignified everything from tiki to blender drinks to many of those singles bar outcasts, they’re taking on the composed shot—the last challenge left in cocktail tradition.
The new composed shots come in many forms. Some riff on the structural language of the shot, like the Old-Fashioned shot at Chicago’s Analogue, which is preceded by a shake of sugar on the back of your hand and followed by a wedge of orange—just like the salt and lime with your standard shot of Cuervo. Others are blowing up the format altogether, like NYC’s 151, whose “trailer tiki” menu includes a test-tube rainbow of Day-Glo-colored shots of pineapple daiquiri (a radical variation of the snaquiri, which began popping up in NYC bars around 2012).
“There are no rules in shots,” says Analogue co-owner Henry Prendergast.
Even the deceptively simple house shot at San Francisco’s Boxing Room has something to say. Bartender Jonny Raglin’s Shot-o-Sarsaparilla combines Jeremiah Weed sarsaparilla-flavored whiskey served from a shot-chiller with a topper of stout-flavored foam formulated by the restaurant’s pastry chef, all served in a tiny root beer mug. And at Miami’s The Forge restaurant, Justin Maas’ layered grasshopper shot is a near perfect replica of a late-‘70s classic, down to the ombré presentation—just with much better ingredients.
Aside from the Everest-like “because it’s there” challenge of redeeming a long-reviled drink, the composed shot appeals to two very different movements in cocktail culture today: the drive toward lower-impact cocktails, which has seen ABVs dropping and glasses shrinking in volume, and the deliberate “re-funning” of a scene that has suffered from an uptight, unapproachable reputation.
Well-made shots are an entry point for drinkers who may not feel comfortable among Chartreuse-slinging connoisseurs; by appealing to self-identified bar snobs with quality ingredients and more balanced flavor profiles, they’re forcing everyone to have a little more fun. As new bars work to distance themselves from the air of sleeve-gartered self-importance that has historically plagued the craft cocktail crowd, having shots on one’s menu are a nonverbal cue that sets a more laid-back tone. They’re universal, and universally appealing; party fodder that’s not meant to be over-considered.
Who can stay mad at that?