How Shotgunning Got Its Very Own Ambassador

More than 200 days ago, Aaron Semmel vowed to shotgun a beer every day for a year and document it on Instagram. Drew Lazor on the possible origins of the beer-chugging ritual, and its new ambassador.

Aaron Semmel’s done it next to a shelf filled with sex toys. He’s done it in a phone booth. He’s done it in a pile of leaves. He’s done it on a moving Segway. He’s done it in front of Mel Blanc’s grave. He’s done it in Billy Wilder’s bathtub. He’s done it near Matthew McConaughey, and he’s done it with Kevin Costner—twice.

On June 19, 2014, Semmel, a Los Angeles-based television producer, embarked on a singular journey: He vowed to shotgun a beer every day, for 365 straight days, logging each and every deed on Instagram for proof. Seven months and 200-plus emptied cans later, Semmel is more than halfway to his calendar mark, though he’s already succeeded in stoking social media’s dual fixation on spontaneity and nostalgia, 15 foam-sprayed seconds at a time.

The act of shotgunning a beer—cutting an opening in the bottom of a can, mouthing the hole, popping the tab and power-gulping the liquid inside like it’s Ragnarök—is fun. It’s also ridiculous. And like many fun, ridiculous drinking rituals, pinpointing its exact origins is tricky, since the pioneers are typically too busy toasting their own blacked-out genius to be bothered with historical documentation.

One inference that seems safe to make about the birth of the shotgun is that it occurred after 1958, the first year beer was offered in aluminum cans. The steel cans in wide circulation prior to this period, which had to be manually punctured with a sharp metal “church key” tool, were likely too well-armored to accommodate the process.

Pull-tab can tops, the predecessor of the efficient stay-tab style that rendered church keys obsolete, became a popular design feature in 1962. This was also the year Spencer Tandy, a friend of Semmel’s who’s filmed several of his segments, first saw shotgunning with his own eyes. Except it wasn’t called that then.

As a 13-year-old student at a Catcher in the Rye-like boarding school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, Tandy distinctly remembers a friend puncturing a beer with a penknife, then squeezing the can to send its contents reeling down his throat. “It was like, ‘Hey, watch this thing I learned to do!’ I don’t think it had a name,” says Tandy, who’d also witnessed the act when he snuck into parties at the eating clubs on Princeton’s campus. “He said his brother in the army had showed it to him.”

That military influence, if you’re willing to indulge in another supposition, might be to thank for the actual term “shotgunning.” American GIs in Vietnam were fond of using the barrels of their unloaded weapons as a makeshift bong, a practice immortalized in films like Platoon. “Shotgun” is now regular pot-smoking slang. Who’s to say if the word didn’t broaden within the greater burnout vernacular to cover all intoxicants forcibly blasted into one’s face?

Though he’s still got quite a ways to go before June 19, 2015, Semmel is set on what he wants to do for his grand finale: shotgun before a studio audience on Jimmy Kimmel Live. The enthusiastic thumbs up he offers after every successful run, he says, was inspired by an identical gesture Kimmel used as the kicker for his infamous “twerk fail” experiment.

Semmel—who says his family members have been shotgunning since the early 1970s—first became familiar with the practice on Cow Hill, a popular high school drinking spot in his hometown of Cary, Illinois. The idea for the “Shotgun a Beer Every Day” challenge, however, was born in the stands of Dodger Stadium on a particularly significant day: June 18, 2014, when eventual MVP Clayton Kershaw pitched what some consider the best no-hitter of all time.

Knowing they were witnessing the baseball equivalent of a shooting star, Semmel and friends went around in a circle, detailing goals they hoped to achieve. Semmel, fascinated by the popularity of the #100happydays social media trend, proclaimed his intentions to shotgun 365 beers in 365 days and hasn’t stopped since. (He’d return to the stadium about a month later to do the deed, landing on the Jumbotron in the process.)

“When you set out to shotgun a beer every day, you guarantee that at least 15 minutes out of that day is going to be absolutely fun and silly,” says Semmel, who’s built up an Instagram following of more than 15,000 with no traditional PR or marketing help. “That’s one of my favorite things about it. Every day has its own story.”

If there’s one thing Semmel’s definitely got, aside from a violent stabbing motion and a general joie de vivre, it’s stories. So far, he’s worked shotgunning into his exercise regimen, his travel schedule, holiday meals and his sister’s wedding. As for those Instagrams featuring a nonplussed Costner: They became buddies when Semmel co-produced his 2012 History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys. (Tandy’s got tales, too: A fellow movie guy who once attempted to adapt Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the screen well before Terry Gilliam’s 1998 version, he says he used to watch Hunter S. Thompson take down 25.4-ounce Foster’s oil cans “as a party trick.”)

Though he’s still got quite a ways to go before June 19, 2015, Semmel is set on what he wants to do for his grand finale: shotgun before a studio audience on Jimmy Kimmel Live. The enthusiastic thumbs up he offers after every successful run, he says, was inspired by an identical gesture Kimmel used as the kicker for his infamous “twerk fail” experiment.

“My dad taught me that if you can see a path to your goal, you’re already 90 percent there,” says Semmel, who hasn’t connected with Kimmel’s people but is confident he’ll make it happen. In the meantime, he’s sticking to a simple mission statement that he hopes will bring anyone overthinking this whole thing back to earth: “Life’s not that serious, man. Just shotgun a beer.”

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