Most of the time, this column weighs in on the more elevated and refined forms of alcoholic drinks: fine wines, crafted cocktails, good beer. However, there’s a hidden underside to bar culture that I can no longer ignore: shots. The lifeblood of many a bar, they can be extremely lucrative for the brand that happens to become the “in” shot. For years that shot was Jägermeister, but more recently Fireball has stolen the crown. Who knows how long its reign will last, but undoubtedly there are already pretenders to the throne plotting and scheming.
Unlike the majority of drinks ordered at a bar, ordering a shot is unambiguous: You’re trying to get drunk quickly. Whether you prefer ridiculously named, questionable-tasting shots (“duck fart,” “liquid cocaine,” “red-headed slut”), drop-shots (like Irish Car Bombs), or more old-fashioned shots (tequila or whiskey), the purpose is to infuse plenty of alcohol into your bloodstream in one, well, shot. However, each of these types has its drawbacks: Mixed shots mean waiting for the bartender to assemble them; drop shots are messy, especially once you’ve had a few; and tequila and/or whiskey are often too strong for some drinkers.
Enter the “brand” shot from a single-bottle liquor. It started with Jägermeister, which managed to seem extremely manly (jägermeister is German for “master of hunting”) while being surprisingly sweet and drinkable. It’s high enough in alcohol (70 proof) to do the trick while appearing cool and exotic. Ordering a shot of Jäger, at least initially, made you seem worldly. Then they started putting Jäger-dispensing machines in bars, and the appeal wore off.
It was fascinating to hear from some of my bartender friends about how rarely they pour Jägermeister anymore. As one of them put it: “Ordering Jäger is like ordering a Sex on the Beach—it just makes you seem out of touch.” In most bars, shots already elicit a bit of an eye-roll from the bartender, so staying current is all the more vital for those hoping to appear hip.
Fireball was ready and willing to take over. Basically a sweetened, cinnamon-infused whiskey, it came even closer to the Platonic ideal of a brand shot. You feel like you’re ordering a real drink (because it’s whiskey!), but the sweetness and cinnamon flavor appease those for whom a shot of straight whiskey would be too much. At 66 proof, it’s less alcoholic than true whiskeys, but even that’s a plus, as it probably encourages drinkers to order another to get a bigger buzz.
It seems inevitable that Fireball too will lose its luster at some point. If I could tell you what the next “in” shot would be, I would be a wealthy man—but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a flavored and sweetened tequila-based spirit take over, at least for a while. It could appeal to both genders, and work with a diverse range of flavors . . . even cinnamon . . . hmm, maybe it’s time to test a new infusion.