We may not remember the history of what happened after we have shots, but the history of shots themselves isn’t as murky.
When we say “shots,” of course, we’re really talking about “shooters”—those tiny mixed drinks served by the ounce or two with names like Lemon Drop, Training Bra, and Purple Hooter (which has nothing to do with owls, ps). The shooter is different from the basic shot—an ounce or so of straight spirit—insofar as a shooter is usually mixed with something (and usually something cloyingly sweet). And shooters actually emerged pretty recently, around the 70s, a dark time in the history of spirits culture. The origin of the straight shot goes back much further, since people have likely been knocking back small amounts of hard liquor since the first barstool was dragged up to the first bar counter after the first really bad day.
According to cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, shooters came about after the end of 50s and 60s cocktail era (think Mad Men, Martinis, sad fabulousness), a time when the next generation was far more interested in recreational drugs than the hard drinks of their parents’ generation. By combining relatively uninspired/uninspiring spirits with syrups and giving the results clever names, liquor companies were able to rebrand the experience—and general purpose—of hard alcohol to keep up with the appeal of drugs. Liquor basically became something to be masked with syrup, shot down, and chased with equally uninspiring beer. The importance wasn’t the taste, but the effect.
Compare that to today, where craft distilleries are popping up all over the country, competing to bring the best small batch whiskey or botanically infused gin to an already crowded market, and you can see a huge disparity in drinking culture over the decades. Not that shooters, or shots, are irrelevant now. They still exist, and shots are still knocked back plentifully (even fatally). But their place in drinking culture will always be a bit dubious, since they’re both blatantly oriented toward quick, generally thoughtless consumption and encourage a culture of rapid, dangerous alcohol ingestion.
Which is to say, there’s absolutely a time and a place. But there’s also most certainly a limit.