Mood Ring, a bar nestled underneath the subway tracks in Bushwick, Brooklyn, sports an aesthetic that falls somewhere between an underground dive bar and a Wong Kar-wai movie. Patrons in leather jackets, Lolita-style dresses with sneakers, and band T-shirts with cut-off sleeves order off a menu on a TV monitor behind the circular bar advertising a monthly “Horoscope Cocktail” special, drinks with names like “Petty” and “Gucci Belt,” and elaborate, brightly colored shots.
The first time I went to Mood Ring, some terrible Trump-related news had happened earlier that day, and while I can’t remember the details, I can remember secretly wanting to go somewhere that was more low-key, less committal, maybe where you could in theory talk it over with the bartender over a mediocre pint, or just sit in the corner with friends and complain. Luckily, that night I was with folks who had been to Mood Ring before, and together we ordered a round of the Aux Cord, a speciality shot that the bar serves for $5 each. It’s like a tiny bloody mary: vodka, tomato juice, Sriracha, Tabasco.
One knock back had me sold. For a moment, the anxieties I was harboring — about the bar, about the news — melted away. And yet, one gulp of the stuff felt like enough; the sudden burst of spice and flavor felt much more cathartic than either tepidly sipping a cocktail or gulping an acrid shot of straight vodka. Imaginary as it might be, the bloody mary taste appeared more daring, more powerful, when it could be condensed into the palm of your hand.
Bowen Goh, who opened Mood Ring last September with longtime friend Vanessa Li, features several shots at the bar, including the “Bodega Dreams” (a shot of whiskey infused with Arizona iced tea) and the “Mystery of Luv” (vodka, lime, and lychee liqueur). “It was kind of fun for us, because we realized that shots were something that people do communally, as a group, whether it’s a birthday party or just a group of people out,” says Goh.
Li says that the two biggest clientele for these drinks are “people who are on Tinder dates” and big groups, like birthday parties. But often, people at the bar simply see other patrons ordering the Aux Cord and are intrigued by the tiny glasses of bright-red liquid. It can turn into a domino effect, says Goh, where orders of the Aux Cord spread throughout the bar as the night goes on. Part of this is because it’s “just” a shot and not a full cocktail; if you end up not liking how the Aux Cord tastes, it’s over in one sip, and you’re only set back five bucks as opposed to $11, $12, or $15.
Of course, “mixed drink” shots have existed and been served at bars before — the B-52 (coffee liqueur, Irish cream, and Grand Marnier), created in 1977, is a famous example — they’ve usually functioned as an excuse for lewd patrons and bartenders to come up with “the most raunchy name you possibly could,” as Kim Haasarud, who runs the drink consulting firm Liquid Architecture, says. Recipes like the buttery nipple (butterscotch schnapps and Irish cream) and the Irish car bomb (Guinness, Irish cream liqueur, whiskey) came from this tradition, and contributed to the stigma surrounding shots: That they were overly sweet, perhaps too-easily consumable, and designed for more novice drinkers in mind.
But over the past few years, a variety of bars, restaurants, and hotels, from small dives like Mood Ring to national chains like TGI Friday’s and Mastro’s Steakhouse, have experimented with “craft” shots and shooters. Where shots were once the purview of college kids on spring break and partying groups wanting to get drunk fast, some bar designers and mixologists now see them as an opening into another realm of sophisticated, or at least more innovative, drink designs.
Perhaps the most famous shot invented in the past two decades is the pickleback, a combination of whiskey and pickle brine whose creation, in 2006, is most often attributed to Reggie Cunningham, a former bartender at Bushwick Country Club. It’s a bizarre drink that’s nonetheless fitting for a Brooklyn dive bar: a hipster-approved fusion of new tastes and rustic traditions (pickles and pickle juice have a long history as drink chasers), one that can be shared casually among friends or — in keeping with the drink’s origins — employed as part of a dare.
“It’s all in the way that you present it,” Haasarud says of the new school of shots. “People want to try new things, and [shots are] a good way, without ordering the entire drink, to try something different.”
At Sweet Liberty, a cocktail bar in Miami Beach, Florida, a boilermaker (beer-and-shot combos) section caters specifically to the after-work crowd. “They’re very popular with industry workers who have just finished a shift,” says Fraser Hamilton, Sweet Liberty’s bar manager. “Shots are for the most no-nonsense drinkers of them all. Also, commonly drunk together as a salute to friendship and comradery.” Sometimes, as patrons are waiting at the bar for a chance to order food, the bartenders will offer them daiquiri shots (“snack-quiris,” as Hamilton calls them) or mini Irish coffees as a thank-you for their patience, as well as to entice them to order the full cocktail versions later in the evening.
Other bars may add more interactive elements. At Three Dots and a Dash, a tiki bar in Chicago, beverage director Kevin Beary designed a group drink order called the Shotstopus, where three rum, passionfruit, and tangerine shots are presented on an octopus-shaped display (each “tentacle” holds a glass) surrounded by dry ice fog and aromatics. “It’s such a wild presentation,” Beary says.
He also admits that the tiki bar atmosphere helps quell the stigma surrounding shots, and transforms them into a fun, elaborate party element. “For the most part, people come here to have a good time. This is not that stuffy environment where taking shots with your friends would be frowned upon.”
For bartenders and bar owners, shots also provide an opportunity to invoke social drinking traditions from other cultures. At Whitechapel, a gin bar in San Francisco, Alex Smith and Martin Cate designed their kopstootje menu (a Dutch word that literally translates to “little head butts”) after taking a trip to Amsterdam and trying a few — not just the drink order itself (a pint of beer and shot of genever mixed with different herbed and spiced liqueurs), but also the highly involved procedure in which it’s meant to be drunk.
“In the Netherlands, they bend down to the table to slurp the overfilled shot with their hands behind their backs,” Smith says via email. “Then they proceed to pick up the glass and down the rest.”
The kopstootje offerings at Whitechapel — “the biggest and most complex menu that I have ever put together, a real labor of love,” says Smith — offers five different genever shots that can each be combined with a beer of choice, for $12. They range from the stately “Traditional” (straight genever and Bols) to the tropical “Erasmus” (Boomsma oude genever, rum, gingersnap, amaro) to the highly aromatic “Rembrandt” (Bols, Becherovka herbal liqueur, and Kummel). While Smith is incredibly proud of his creations, he admits that patrons’ unfamiliarity with the kopstootje tradition makes them less popular than the bar’s more classic gin cocktails.
“The name probably throws people off to begin with, and it isn’t a cultural thing that we do here the same way they do in the Netherlands,” says Smith. “It is common and fun to do [over there], but here people don’t seem to get into it as much.”
What differentiates this new breed of “cocktail” shots is their focus on complex flavors and recipes that would normally not only be inaccessible to the average bar-goer, but also unappealing. The affordability of shots turns the highfalutin culture around mixology and craft cocktails into something more egalitarian — you may not be able to afford (or enjoy) a solo $22 Manhattan in the East Village, but ordering a round of $6 shot versions for the table not only saves your wallet, but also transforms the entire drinking experience.
“It is meant to be a fun social toast, a punctuation in your night of drinking beers, versus getting drunk quickly by doing several large shots in a row,” says Smith.
Haasarud sees the new shot trend as an “educational element” to expand patrons’ palates and open bars up to stranger, more experimental menu items. “It allows you more freedom,” she says. “Maybe this is something that you wouldn’t have ordered before, but because it’s only five dollars, you’re like, ‘I want to try this, I’ve been hearing about this.’ So I think it could also really open the door in allowing restaurants to give something new to try that they wouldn’t have otherwise done.”
Creative shots encourage groups of friends to partake in a low-risk, unpretentious, economically sound way to experiment with unfamiliar flavors and drinking styles — ones that they might not necessarily try on their own, or in larger portions. Just as the dining world needs its casual, family-style establishments with flavors and foods just as bold as the three-star Michelin restaurants, it’d be nice to have a cocktail world that provided the same. And while shots may still have that classic go-hard-or-go-home association in certain watering holes, the mixed-drink shooters offer a brief form of escapism without needing you to drown your sorrows in alcohol. Drinks no longer have to be a choice between casual, fun, or innovative — with mixed-drink shots, you can have all three.