On July 17, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed into law 23 U.S.C. § 158. Better known as the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, it strong-armed states into raising the drinking age from 18 to 21, lest they lose annual federal highway funds. By mid-1988, all 50 states plus the District of Columbia had taken action. Instituted ostensibly to make the country a safer place, it instead gave rise to more dangerous drinking culture. It was against this backdrop that—for better or worse—the dare shot thrived.
“My first shot ever, given to me on my 16th birthday at a huge house party, was a Cement Mixer,” says Meaghan Montagano, a longtime bartender in New York City, citing the infamous mixture of Baileys Irish Cream and Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial. “I am still traumatized. I can still feel the curdle in my mouth.”
In a 2009 episode of his reality series The Supersizers Eat… The Eighties, British restaurant critic Giles Coren labeled the Cement Mixer “the worst cocktail ever invented.” But the mixture, which was designed to curdle by the time it reached one’s mouth—or else it was swished around in the drinker’s mouth until the point of curdling—would go on to become the poster child for a class of drinks conceived to be intentionally terrible: the dare shot.
“It’s kind of mean,” bartender Lyndsey Thompson told a reporter, in one of the earliest mentions of the Cement Mixer in print. “People never order one for themselves.”
Of course, extravagant, multipart shots were around well before the drinking age changed. The Kamikaze—vodka, triple sec and lime juice—first appeared in 1976, supposedly created at an American naval base in Tokyo. The Irish Car Bomb—half Jameson, half Baileys, dropped into a Guinness—is generally credited to Connecticut bartender Charles Oat in 1979. Likewise, the Flaming Dr Pepper—amaretto and grain alcohol, set on fire, then plopped into a pint glass of lager—arrived by 1986.
But even if the uninitiated might have had some hesitation about throwing back two ounces of flaming liquor, there was consensus that these brash mixtures actually tasted pretty good, the latter even resembling the popular Waco-born cherry soda. In other words, there was no “dare” to these shots; you weren’t laughing at someone as they drank them—you were throwing one back alongside them.
That all changed when the drinking laws did, however. Suddenly, newly minted 21-year-olds were hitting their college bars at the stroke of midnight to “Drink Your Age”—in other words, pound 21 shots in the hour before closing time. Typically, these were not the standard rail shots, either.
“One bartender said that guys, especially, have a way of ordering the most disgusting drinks possible for their birthday buddy,” reported Spokane, Washington’s The Spokesman-Review in 2004.
“Everyone always has a horror story when it comes to shots...that one shot that makes them sick just thinking about it.”
The New York Times was on the case by the next year, detailing a 21st birthday celebration in Fargo, North Dakota, where a freshly legal celebrant attempted to down 21 shots before the bar shut down for the night—a lethal trend termed the “power hour.” Many of these shots were of the dare variety, like his 13th shot, a Prairie Fire—tequila combined with Tabasco—along with the Three Wise Men (Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam and Johnnie Walker) and, naturally, the Cement Mixer.
Apart from 21st birthday celebrations, bachelor and bachelorette parties would prove to be an especially fertile ground for the proliferation of prank shots. In fact, it was at a bachelorette party in the mid-1990s that the Blow Job shot emerged. Featuring Baileys slowly layered with Kahlúa and amaretto, all topped with whipped cream, the shot was meant to be consumed without the use of one’s hands, instead relying on the drinker’s mouth to grab the shot glass and tilt it back from the bar top, or, in the more risqué approach, between a gentleman’s legs.
Though it’s nearly impossible to track down the originator of every prank shot—after all, few people are clamoring to claim credit for the Liquid Steak (Bacardi 151 and Worcestershire sauce) or the Smoker’s Cough (Jägermeister and mayonnaise, meant to look like phlegmy expectorate)—there’s no denying that the country witnessed a surge in the early 2000s.
Of those that reared their heads around this time, certain mixtures seemed to cross the line from dare shot to troll shot—something imagined, but surely too offensive to ever be realized. Take, for example, the New Jersey Turnpike, the cumulative liquid absorbed by the bar mat squeezed into a shot glass, or the Horse Jizz, one part beer, one part cream.
But the rise of content-churning websites suddenly lent a certain veracity to the practice, actualizing these creations from mere concepts to reality. Dare shots are, of course, clickbait incarnate, and by the 2010s they began appearing in countless listicles even if they were largely absent from bar menus; The 10 Birthday Shots Guaranteed to Make You Vomit, read one headline in the Phoenix New Times in 2010, while the Boozist blog offered an infographic illustrating the 30 Worst Shots You Could Take Tonight.
Social media would only up the ante: Does a dare shot even count if it’s not recorded and uploaded for posterity?
“When I’m pouring shots the whole night,” says a bartender in a YouTube video from 2009, “whatever spills into this little mat right here, I pick it up … and pour it into a shot glass.” He’s talking, of course, about the New Jersey Turnpike, the apogee of dare shots sometimes called the Bar Mat Shot, Gutter Shot, Old Shoe, Dirty Panties, Buffalo Sweat, the Matt Dillon and the L.A. Freeway. Whatever you want to call it, it was perfect for YouTube and countless attempts began appearing on the video-sharing platform in the early 2010s.
By 2016, the popular YouTube channel Food Beast even had a series titled Worst Shots Ever. “Everyone always has a horror story when it comes to shots,” said host Sean Fahmy during the introductory credits. “That one shot that makes them sick just thinking about it.” Over 19 episodes, starting with the Cement Mixer (natch), Fahmy tackled everything from the Facefuck (Jack Daniels, Fireball) to the Crawfish Revenge (rum, moonshine, tequila, crawfish meat).
Today, dare shots have mostly moved to Instagram and TikTok, where in normal bargoing days you might see someone post a quick video of their friend getting punked by a Tidal Wave, a shot of blue Curaçao taken as the unsuspecting drinker gets splashed in the face with water.
While trapped home alone for the past year, however, the evolution has moved inward and many young TikTokers have dared to challenge themselves with these outrageous shots. Like Ben Hogan, who boasts he can do a shot of anything without making a face. So far this year he’s done canonical dare shots like the Cement Mixer and the Tapeworm Shot (vodka, Tabasco, black pepper and mayo), though, of late, he has moved onto more dubious concoctions like rum and olive oil and toothpaste with orange juice, which have helped build his audience to over 60,000 followers.
Exactly where the dare shot is headed now that they’ve become largely self-inflicted, however, remains to be seen, but many are eager to find out. As Hogan asks the camera at the end of his successful shots: “What’s next?!”