In 2016, the county of Lincolnshire, England, introduced a new safety protocol meant to protect women from sexual violence during nights out. The concept was simple: If a guest at a bar, restaurant, or nightclub felt unsafe, they could ask a bartender or server for Angela, which would signal to the staff that the guest needed assistance. It was publicized with posters in women’s bathrooms, letting guests know that they could use this protocol in the event of a sketchy situation.

Somewhere along the way (it’s unclear exactly when the shift happened) the system came to the United States, where it was readapted as the Angel Shot campaign — instead of asking the bartender for a fictitious Angela, guests ask for an Angel shot, which signals the same need for assistance.

“It’s almost mythical,” said Keita Erskine, a career bartender and server who has worked in and around Chicago. “No one has ever said it to me, but I saw it happen once.”

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Erskine was sitting at the bar after his shift at Evanston, Ill.’s Bangers and Lace when it happened. A woman who he says appeared to be on a first date was near him at the bar; her date was visibly drunk, and was insisting they have another shot.

“She ordered an Angel Shot,” Erskine remembers. “The date thought she was talking about Angels’ Envy and asked for one as well. I think the bartender poured her a shot of iced tea, and the guy had the bourbon. She didn’t seem like she felt unsafe so much as she was annoyed, but it got the bartender’s attention, and he kept an eye on her until the date left.”

In a viral TikTok from 2021, bartender @benjispears explains the coded language of the Angel Shot, explaining that they’ve become more common in the last few years. If a patron asks for an Angel Shot with lime, it indicates they need the police; ordered neat, it means they need someone to walk them to their car. On the rocks, it means the patron needs help getting a car home.

Both the Angel Shot and Ask for Angela are largely unregulated — they’re not like, say, health code regulations that every bar and restaurant is required to know and follow. Even Erskine said the restaurant company he worked for at the time of the Angel Shot interaction had posters in the bathrooms at some, but not all, of its establishments. He explained that the concept wasn’t a part of their formal training, but, was more a question of the culture of the place.

“That company is very serious about guest safety and harassment,” Erskine said. “I don’t remember a specific moment in the training where they explained Angel Shots, but the bartenders would talk about it, and it was just part of our lexicon.”

Though helpful, the concept is inherently flawed. For one, as these ideas circulate more freely on social media, they lose their whisper-network quality, opening the possibility that a harasser will know what it means when someone asks for Angela or an Angel Shot. Posting information in women’s bathrooms also implies that only women are being harassed, which is patently false.

Ultimately, Erskine points out, hospitality workers are talented at reading body language and assessing social situations.“If you’re uncomfortable as a guest, the people who are most likely to be sober and able to help you are the staff,” he says. “[But], it’s hard when you get in that fight or flight, so I think anything a restaurant or bar can do to indicate that they’re looking out for guests — whether it’s specifically an Angel Shot poster or something else –– is really helpful”