Today’s cutting-edge bartender may be all about the house-made bitters and syrups, the shrubs and the gastriques, but many bar guests still crave shots and shooters. They’re fast, fun and generally lucrative for an operator, concerns about over-consumption aside.
Whether it’s a knot of businessmen knocking back tequila, birthday celebrators pounding Jagermeister or wandering bartenders buying rounds of Fernet Branca or Jameson for their pals, the downing of shots remains a nightly ritual.
Shots have grown up a bit, however. The modern mixology wave has left no drinking style unchanged, and tinkering bartenders have started turning the shot ritual into an experience that’s a little more refined.
New York’s upscale sports bar Bounce Sporting Club has the required multiscreen set up with loads of flashing lights and special events; it’s also known for tasty cocktails. Bounce has in fact become famous for its Banana Jameson, a shot of banana-infused Jameson Irish whisky, created by bartender Chelsey Dunkel.
What started as an off-the-menu special for those in the know has grown into a phenomenon, complete with Banana Jameson cocktails and a Jameson-inspired food menu. The Banana Jameson and concoctions based on it have been so successful, they’ve made Bounce the number-one, stand-alone seller of Jameson.
How did it come about? “We were experimenting with different infusions for shots for some time, trying different things like cherries with whiskey and pineapple with vodka,” says Dunkel. “Working with whiskey, you have all these signature earthy notes, but when you add banana to it, it tends to round out the whiskey for the average consumer. Banana Jameson actually tastes like banana bread.”
Dunkel says the shot appeals to the male and female customers as well—no girly colors, not overly sweet, but broadly popular. About 70% of Bounce’s enormous Jameson volume is sold either as Banana Jameson shots or through cocktails based on the infusion.
Great Balls of Fire
While watching the enormous popularity of Fireball whiskey grow into a crowd-pleasing shot, a number of bartenders have taken aim and created their own incendiary shooter.
At Chicago’s Celeste, bartender Freddie Sarkis developed his Fireball Shot with the idea of reducing the sweetness of the commercially made spiced whiskies. Celeste’s bartenders crafted their house-made version by consulting with the kitchen team, eventually infusing whiskey with a mixture of cinnamon and other warming spices until it is lightly flavored.
The bar menu at BLVD. Cocktail Company at LINQ in the heart of the Las Vegas strip includes the Atomic, a homemade fireball shot. It’s made by infusing American whiskey with nine spices, including cinnamon, star anise, black peppercorn, cardamom, nutmeg and clove for three weeks.
Given that any Vegas bar crowd is likely to be an international mix, any drink needs to provide something different without being too bar geeky, says bartender and drink creator Juyoung Kang.
“We get people from all over the world looking for different things and we need something that appeals to every demographic. We already were going through a ton of Fireball, and we thought it would be a bit different and interesting to have our own,” she says.
Given free range, Kang did her research, reaching out to see how other bartenders were making their own spiced whiskey. She found that many were just soaking cinnamon candies in spirit—an approach she didn’t find appealing.
Keeping it Real
Starting with high-proof whiskey, Kang added cinnamon sticks and other spices. Then, recalling her father’s annual Thanksgiving tea made with fruits and spices, she experimented with cherries and dark sugar in one batch, and for fall she used apples and brown sugar.
How has it worked out? The bar ran through her first batch in a week, and the Atomic is now one of BLVD.’s best-selling drinks. Kang now changes the fruits and sweeteners each season.
What’s more, Kang and her bar team are now working on a house-made herbal shot meant to mimic Chartreuse. They are sourcing every herb, spice and flower available (her goal is 80) and working on balancing the impact of dried vs. fresh herbs, deciding length of infusion, coloration and other factors before bringing the infusion to service.
Kang is also considering creating a shot using gin now that there’s a resurgence of interest in quality gin. “People are open minded to try new things and not as afraid as they used to be,” she says.
The Craft of Shots
Other mixologists in craft bars have different methods of welcoming the nightly customer search for shots and shooters. In some cases, they’re using their favorite recipes to bring shot drinkers into the craft cocktail fold.
For example, Dan Rook, head bartender of Chicago’s South Water Kitchen, often opts for his Barrel Aged Mezcal Old Fashioned. It’s made with Alipus “San Baltazar Guelavila” mezcal, Angostura bitters, Demerara sugar and Regan’s Orange bitters, shaken over ice and served up.
When that doesn’t fit, Rook divides one of his house craft cocktails into three portions and serves up shooter versions. One is the Old Armchair (Cognac, pear, agave nectar, rosemary, lemon, Fee Brothers Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters); another is the Lover’s Carved Heart (bourbon, amaro, birch bark syrup, black walnut bitters).
“I have seen this as a catalyst to turn people on to craft cocktails—people come in looking for silly shots and shooters that we just don’t do, like Sex on the Beach,” says Rook. “So I just break down one of our craft cocktails instead of making them one of the silly shots they drank in college.”
The strategy usually results in the guest enjoying the shooter and asking questions about the cocktail program, Rook says, “and then I can turn them on to something else.”
To be sure, customers still ask for Jaeger Bombs and Fireballs and other drinks that Southwater doesn’t serve, and Rook tries to accommodate them one way or another.
“There’s always a fine line between education and pretension,” he notes, “but you do want to have the customer service conversation about how we make our own syrups and bitters, and I tell them I can make a spicy whiskey shot with our own bitters and syrup.”
Some guests resist change, Rook admits, “but you have to steer them into that new world without turning them off as a customer, because most people want to try new things.”
Looking to the Classics
Houston-based mixologist Alexander Gregg likes to accommodate the shot seekers with abbreviated versions of a classic cocktails. “Not everyone wants to take the time to enjoy a wonderfully crafted cocktail,” he notes. “Some just want a tasty shot and to move on.”
The cocktails that typically work best as shots tend to be citrus driven, with some sort of fruit component, Gregg says.
“For example, I love making shot versions of the Bramble,” with gin, lemon, sugar, creme de cassis, he says. The important thing when making craft-style shots is to execute them quickly, make them tasty and never too sweet or too strong, he adds.
Boilermakers Heat Up
The Pickleback (Jameson served with a side of pickle brine) set off the revival for shots with chasers in some quarters. Now even beer-and-shot combos—sometimes called boilermakers—are back. The traditional drink of the working man’s saloon, they’re being featured at newly opened bars.
The Venice Whaler in Los Angeles opened with the Pickleback on the menu along with the Bitter Kiss—grapefruit juice and Atlantico rum dropped into an IPA beer.
New York’s latest homage is the bar called Boilermaker, where bar stars Erick Castro and Don Lee are dedicating a portion of the menu to their eponymous drink. The opening menu features pairings such as the All-American (Miller High Life and Ancient Age 80 Proof bourbon), Machete in Space (Tecate and Cabeza blanco tequila), the National Anthem (Brooklyn Lager and Old Grand-Dad bonded bourbon) and Dark and Bitter (Victory Storm King Stout and Ramazotti Amaro).
When craft barmen better known for creating fat-washed cocktail recipes start menuing beer and shots, it’s pretty clear a national revival of shots and shooters is building steam.
Jack Robertiello is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY.