Ask a bartender to give you a shot and he or she will not present you with a bullet or new opportunity. It’s clear that you want a pour of liquor served neat in a small glass — that’s what “shot” has always meant, right?
Not really. As with many drinking terms, the origin of “shot” in this context is cloudy. Google defines “shot” in reference to alcohol as, “a small drink, especially of distilled liquor” with Germanic roots. Ask the internet and believe the memes, though, and you’d believe otherwise.
“In the old west a .45 cartridge for a six-gun cost 12 cents, so did a glass of whiskey,” one popular shot meme from 2003 states. “If a cowhand was low on cash he would often give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink. This became known as a ‘shot’ of whiskey.”
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Kim LaCapria and David Emery, from the fact-checking website Snopes, looked into this. Surprise! Memes are rarely based on truth and this one is a complete lie. The oldest recorded reference Snopes found of shot as a measure of liquor was in the autobiography of Reverend Oliver Heywood, who lived from 1630 to 1702. The West wasn’t trampled over by whiskey-shooting cowboys until the mid-1800s.
Heywood’s records do, however, include the phrase “their vain way of drinking shots.” Snopes suggests he likely learned of and adapted the term from another context. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 15th-century England, “shot” meant “a charge to be paid” when used in the context of a bill at the bar.
The humble shot has come a long way since Heywood’s day. The size of a shot glass varies depending on which country you’re in, and, in some places, shots are consumed out of glasses attached to skis. Cocktail historian David Wondrich places the rise of shots among drinkers to the 1970s and ‘80s. Baby Boomers who didn’t want to drink the stiff Martinis and Manhattans of the Mad Men era popularized the small, efficient alcohol-delivery system.
The next time you reach for a 1.5-ounce glass of liquor and prepare to regret your bar tab in the morning, remember your history, and the old, “vain way of drinking shots.”