Liquor Shots Get a New York-Style Makeover
Originally published in the Wall Street Journal.
Is the humble shot about to get a craft makeover?
Bars across the city are touting shots on their menus alongside craft cocktails—concoctions that go beyond the traditional one-ounce pour.
Take, for example, the Dark and Bitter combination (Victory Storm King Stout beer meet Ramazzotti Amaro).
“The beauty of that amaro when it’s paired with the beer is that you end up with a Venn diagram,” said Erick Castro, head bartender and co-owner at Boilermaker in the East Village. “And the intersection is where the magic happens.”
This weekend, Boilermaker will host a competition to put bartenders’ shot skills in the spotlight. The challenge: present the perfect shot-and-beer pairing. The limits: no garnishes, no mixing, no altering of any kind.
“The idea is that you have to know the ingredients that much more intimately,” Mr. Castro said.
Early submissions have included pairings of Belgian beer with an esoteric mescal, for example. About 20 bartenders will come to the competition armed with bottles of a beer and the spirit of their choosing, but nothing more.
Boilermaker is one of several bars where bartenders are leaning toward shot-and-beer combinations. 151 in the Lower East Side, Half & Half, a newly opened bar at the Hudson Hotel, and Subject, all spotlight shots on their menus.
Subject offers infused shots in flavors ranging from cinnamon to habanero bitters to watermelon rock candy. The Autumn Whiskey shot, for example, is bourbon infused with cinnamon, burdock and amaro, served with a Pabst Blue Ribbon. Another popular shot is the spicy tequila with habanero bitters and lime, which comes with a Tecate lager.
“I tell people it is essentially a beer and a mini cocktail,” said Matthew Rush, who owns Subject.
Mr. Rush adds that while some customers slam their shots, others like to sip them like drinks. “It depends on the night of the week,” he said.
People have been imbibing small neat pours in drams since the earliest days of drinking, but the beer-and-shot combination dates to America’s early days of distilling. The pairing was once called “the boilermaker and his apprentice,” which referred to the small but strong whiskey shot and its fizzy young sidekick, the beer, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich.
“It’s a uniquely American thing,” Mr. Wondrich says, pointing out that the original duo of Pilsner-style beer and a whiskey linked America’s German and Irish immigrant drinking cultures. “By the late 19th century, it’s become a standard American pairing.”
Shots have since evolved as a way for bartenders to bond with co-workers as well as customers. “It’s a way of shaking hands, giving a hug to someone when I can’t reach across the bar,” Dev Johnson, a bartender at Employees Only, said of handing out shots.
One popular cocktail-style shot is the so-called snackquiri, in which a full-size daiquiri is split into smaller portions and drunk quickly.
“A daiquiri has become a bartender’s favorite cocktail,” Sarah Morrissey, a bartender at Dear Irving and Boilermaker, said. And since the snackquiri is approachable for even the shot-shy, “it’s totally an excuse to drink with the customers.”
Neat pours of whiskey and tequila are always popular, but, at the other end of the spectrum are challenging shots, featuring spirits like the medicinal Fernet Branca or the artichoke-based bitter Cynar.
At Boilermaker, which opened in September, beers and shots are coupled with the same attention to flavor profiles given to cocktails.
“As you sip them, the flavors intertwine and create a new flavor,” Mr. Castro said. “In a way, you do one plus one—and it ends up being three.”
As to the etiquette surrounding shots, New York’s bar talent has some standing rules.
“You’re not just trying to get wasted,” Ms. Morrissey says. “You’re trying to drink really good stuff too.”
“A good shot is supposed to pick you up and get the night going,” Mr. Castro says. “Shots aren’t supposed to taken by people who already hammered. That’s not the point.”