Breckenridge, Colorado’s annual Ullr Fest, a week-long celebration honoring the Norse god of winter, is intentionally goofy. There’s a viking-themed parade, a Christmas tree burning, a frying pan toss, even a polar plunge into nearby Maggie Pond. At the 2013 Fest, 192 adults lined 313 feet of Main Street holding 64 bolted-together skis adorned with three shot glasses apiece. After a megaphoned countdown, everyone lifted the skis, simultaneously took 192 shots of mint schnapps and broke a world record.
A “shotski,” as it’s called, involves several shot glasses placed equidistant apart across the deck of a discarded downhill ski, allowing several folks to concurrently down a shot. Shotskis are the sizzling fajitas of the barroom—you can’t help but notice when someone orders one. There’s the ceremony as the ski is pulled off the wall (when was the last time that thing was washed?), the anticipation as the bartender fills the glasses, the excitement as participants belly up.
During a 2013 episode of The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon claimed (jokingly, I think) that he and his wife invented the shotski, sending social media into a frenzy. He was wrong, several hundred Facebook users avowed. Everyone knew the real place of its birth:
“The miners in Park City, UT invented it nearly 100 years ago!”
“Not true the shot ski was around in the 50s and 60s at mount hood according to my mother who did the shot ski with friends then.” [sic]
“The first shot ski was in Sun Valley it was first done by Hemingway and his friends. The ski is still in the Sun Valley lodge.” [sic]
“According to my French ski instructor friend—it came from La Plagne (or nearby) in the Alps.”
“It was invented in Munich at the Oktoberfest in 1967 (I was there).”
I followed up on all of these rumors, searching for the truth. But none of this social media-driven hearsay ever checked out. Two rumors, though, stood out as more pervasive than any others.
The first was that the University of British Columbia ski team had originated the shotski. Clearly, college is the place where drinking shenanigans usually originate, so I reached out to Jack Hauen, coordinating editor of UBC’s student-run newspaper, The Ubyssey. But all he could tell me was, “I remember seeing one in someone’s basement or something, but that’s about it.” He did add that the university’s Ski & Board club does still like to party, and the shotski would definitely “fit with their vibe.”
“Shotskis are definitely a part of the après-ski and ski town lifestyle,” Grace Gabree, the marketing coordinator for Breckenridge Distillery, told me. It was her company that sponsored that record-breaking shotski. She speculated the earliest days of après-ski culture must have quickly lead to this silly mountain ritual.
Drinking and partying after a long day schussing, usually while still in your gear, was created by Europeans—with the first recorded use of the term “après-ski” appearing in French ski magazine La Revue du Ski in November of 1938. Ski historian Morten Lund, in the terrific 2007 article “Tea Dance to Disco: Après-Ski Through the Ages,” cited post-skiing revelry as first appearing in Norway in the mid-1800s, before spreading throughout the Alps by the turn of the century.
Of course, even if Norway did invent skiing and après-ski, there was one thing missing: the shot glass. The OED cites “shot-glass” as first being mentioned in 1955 (though it also appears in the New York Times in 1951), but they’d begun popping up as brand promotional items a few decades prior. Take après-ski and the shot glass and toss in the Alps’ hardest drinking nation, and voila: the likely birthplace of the shotski.
Ace Mackay-Smith notes in Mountain Life that, “In Austria, the shot-ski is traditionally known as a schnappski,” the portmanteau adding schnapps, the ubiquitous fruit brandies of that Alpine land, to the fray. “Austrian old timers didn’t bother with power tools or glue,” she explained. The classic schnappski method is to simply place the glasses atop a ski, and then rely on adept teamwork to get the ski (and schnapps) from table to face. “It’s riskier,” Mackay-Smith writes, “but skiing has always been about risk, just read the back of your lift ticket!”
Still, Mackay-Smith and other believers in the Austrian origin story had no real proof. I asked the only Austrian I know, Bernard Praschl, an occasional spirits journalist in Vienna, about the theory. A drinker of whiskey and rum, he’d never even heard of the sport (and gave me a look that said, “What are they teaching you in American schools?”) Whatever the case, even if Europeans started it, Americans figured out how to monetize it.
Dave Paulick is a partner in Shot-Ski, a Wisconsin outfit that was the first company to commercialize the shotski. He first encountered one at Big Powderhorn Mountain in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: “It was a primitive version with glasses that were glued onto the ski.” Yearning to improve on the technology, in 2005, he started his company, offering a high-end apparatus with metal brackets and rubber grommets that held the glasses on.
Companies like his, Shotz Ski and InstantShotski—which allows customers to turn literally anything long and flat into one in under a minute—have helped the shotski find a place well beyond the slopes. Today, it’s primarily a staple of bro’d out binge-drinking joints, like America’s ersatz Hofbräuhaus franchises and, well, Hooters. But every now and again, the shotski pops up in the most unlikely of places, like a lakeshore (where shots are are often affixed to water skis, naturally) and, notably, on the set of Watch What Happens Live, where a shotski gifted to host Andy Cohen by Fallon has met the mouths of countless celebrities.
It’s high-brow and low-brow, for booze-hounds and drinking neophytes. So perhaps the question is no longer “Who invented the shotski?” but rather, “Why do I want to do one?” Or, as Martha Stewart asked Andy Cohen before hoisting one herself: “Where did they get the ski?”