Many of us have a palpable reaction to the word “shots!” Some of us hear the word and know it’s time to go home. Others look eagerly in the direction of the person shouting.
No matter your preference, shots have had a hold on American bar-goers since the 1970s, when they inexorably made their mark. We’re talking Kamikazes, Snake Bites and, yes, Jello shots. Nowadays, most folks older than 21 have reduced their intake of such classy potables, but the shot-and-a-beer combo remains popular.
That’s likely why the new, sophisticated sibling to the Jello shot—the micro-cocktail—is having a moment. You’ll see mini cocktails, or “shot cocktails,” poured into tiny vessels from Minnesota to Miami to New York City.
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At one outpost of Dunn Brothers Coffee in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which acquired a liquor license on the condition that its drinks not exceed 24% alcohol by volume (ABV), mini Manhattans and chipotle chili-spiked sour shots are sipped alongside draft beers that complement their flavors. In Miami, dessert shots—such as a “s’more shot” with vanilla vodka, Godiva chocolate liqueur, and a graham-cracker-toasted-marshmallow meringue cap—are the name of the game. And in New York City, ordering the “Research and Development” beer-and-a-shot combo at craft cocktail bar Holiday Cocktail Lounge yielded a pint of Ballast Point IPA Sculpin and a sweet, gingery, bourbon-based mini cocktail. It was fantastic.
For Danny Neff, bar manager at the Holiday, mini cocktails were an organic outgrowth of making drinks while super-busy. “If you’re really in the weeds,” he says, “no matter how much you try, you’re not gonna be as precise all the time.” He’d frequently end up with a bit of extra cocktail in the shaker, and would pour it into a shot glass to give to a guest at the bar: “Here, a little shot to show my appreciation.” Soon he noticed that another bar, The Up & Up across town, had formalized this on its menu as Halfsies: “Half-size cocktails, or shots, depending on how you drink them!”
A beer-and-a-shot drinker himself, Neff appreciated the trend. Because a tiny cocktail has a lower ABV than a shot thanks to the diluting properties of syrups and fresh juices, “this is a way to still do that combo but keep it a little easier” on the body. When he started offering mini shot and pint combos—which cost $9, as opposed to $13 for an actual shot of straight liquor and a beer—he would explain the distinction to customers. He still gets funny faces when people don’t read the fine print, and realize they’ve just tossed back something very elegant.
The micro-drinks vary by the day, but always have Tin Cup bourbon or Snow Leopard vodka as a base. Neff builds the pairing based on the beer on draft: IPAs tend to get matched with the bourbon, and pilsners with the vodka. He likes that he’s able to offer a well-priced beer and shot combo in a rapidly gentrifying part of Manhattan, but he doesn’t shy from high-end ingredients, such as ginger syrups shipped in from Cocktail & Sons in New Orleans.
As to how to drink them, “that’s your prerogative,” he says. Sure, you could do a boilermaker, or sip the cocktail alongside the pint, or tip back the shot first, then hit the beer. Since the beer-and-a-shot combo is a bartender favorite—even among the most high-end barkeeps—there’s really no need to be fussy.