The 11 Regional Shots Americans Slam Across the Country
In the calculated, closed-door brainstorm sessions in the country's most powerful liquor conglomerates, there's a name that elicits equal parts fear & ethyl-soaked admiration. You know it; your favorite bartender knows it; your kid brother who just turned 21 knows it: Fireball.
The cinnamon whisky liqueur has taken American happy hours and house parties by storm in the last decade, propelled by its friendly Big Red embrace and lower-than-normal ABV (it clocks in around 66-proof, whereas true whiskeys hover between 80 & 100). In his excellent Businessweekprofile of Fireball's rise, Devin Leonard describes the spicy orange elixir as a "challenge shot" -- one that inspires the same "what-the-hell" bravado in casual drinkers that Jaegermeister did in the '90s & early aughts. And while there are scant few challengers to Fireball's current seat on the national throne, there are drinking communities across the country with their own regional challenge shots. Sometimes delicious, sometimes disgusting, each of these beverages is so beloved by its constituents, its place in the local drinking canon is cemented -- no matter how hot Fireball's flame burns.
From San Francisco, to New Orleans, to the salty shores of New England, these are America's favorite regional challenge shots (plus one from Canada, because why not?).
What: An Italian herbal liqueur made from myrrh and other, more-secret ingredients
Where: San Francisco and the Bay Area
With a bitter bite and an aroma recognizable from across the bar, it's sort of mystifying that fernet (pronounced "fir-Nett," by the way) ever made the leap from Italian digestif to shot-of-choice for anyone. But San Francisco is a city that a) loves its booze, and b) hates being like the rest of the country, and by whatever twist of fate, Bay Area palates are absolutely batty for the stuff. The city famously consumes 35% of all the fernet imported to the US, and in some neighborhoods, there are bars that have it on tap. Oh, and Argentina happens to love this stuff, too... which, like, figure that one out on your own.
What: Sticky, citrusy, Cognac-y liqueur, the shot form of which is sometimes shorthanded as "GrandMa"
Where: Charleston, SC and much of the Southeast & Mid-Atlantic
Last year, PUNCH published a short, wistful history of Grand Marnier's meteoric rise & recent fall by Hanna Raskin. The writer -- a Charleston transplant -- traced the trend of "shooting GrandMa" back to Chef Bob Carter of the city's Peninsula Grill, whose charisma alone elevated the booze from its place as a supporting actor in cocktails to a leading role in snifters & shot glasses all over town.
Amor y Amargo's mad mixologist Sother Teague told me that he's seen the practice of shooting GrandMa as far North as Baltimore, but Raskin's report indicates that Grand Marnier consumption is on the wane in the Holy City. It's been widely supplanted at less traditional Charleston bars by -- you guessed it -- Fireball.
What: Jell-O shots. But, you know, fancier & slightly (but not too much) more expensive than normal Jell-O shots.
Where: Portland, OR
Of course Portland loves Jell-O shots. They're inexpensive. They're hilariously ironic. And they can be gussied up nicely. That's a recipe for a trend in Stumptown, where people always love an excuse to drink something cheap, but winkingly, so they don't look too cheap or low-class. That's a good thing for the Jell-O shot, which gets the artisan treatment in order to blow the doors off "strawberry/vodka" and enter the realm of "fresh-squeezed Key lime pie with mint whipped cream" and the like. They're more expensive, but only by about a buck, and well worth it. Plus, they've inspired yet another trend: the pudding shot, which is exactly what it sounds like and invites all sorts of inappropriate Cosby humor.
What: A vicious kick of Swedish wormwood right to the taste buds
Given the masochism required to make it through a Chicago winter, it's no surprise the Windy City favors this deliberately savage urine-hued shooter. Distilled with wormwood (though mostly void of the trippy agent that gives absinthe its reputation), Malört is quite literally a challenge shot in that it's fairly impossible to slug without a grimace. Due to decades of loyalty from defiant/deranged Chicago barflies, this distastefulness has actually become legend around the city, to the point that 90% of all bottles produced are consumed within Cook County. If you're ever in town & looking for trouble, you'll have no trouble tracking it down with this Malört Map. Godspeed.
Molson Canadian Cold Shot
What: Not liquor, but beer -- higher-ABV and packaged for Canadian drinkers on-the-go
Where: Canada, plus US communities near the border
No, it's not hooch. Hell, it's not even a shot -- or at least, not in the same sense as the rest of this index. But despite being beer, Molson Canadian's Cold Shots do technically have "shot" in their name, and we have it on good authority from a few natives that these adorable little cans are the go-to for smuggling booze into hockey games, curling matches, and even bars. Frankly, they seem to treat these 6-percenter beer-nips up there like we treat energy drinks down here. Also frankly, that's awesome.
Dr. McGillicuddy's Mentholmint Schnapps
What: Syrupy schnapps with a minty-fresh bite
Where: New England, specifically, Massachusetts; more specifically, the Cape and the islands
McGillicuddy's line of faux-medicinal alcoholic beverages have graced liquor store shelves for decades in flavors of all kinds. They recall a simpler time -- one when the insinuation that booze had prescriptive healing powers probably seemed like a less risky thing to build an entire brand around.
Of them all, this breath-friendly combination of extremely artificial mint & menthol flavor is the one that piqued the interest of the Masshole liver public. Like a cooling burst of boozy Binaca, it rivals Fireball in its forgiving taste & smoothness, which isn't surprising, considering the latter was actually just another flavor in the "Shot Doctor" lineup before being spun-off by Sazerac, the holdings company which still owns both labels.
What: A clear corn-mash liquor made at home & slugged from jars
Where: Appalachia & points Southeast
Moonshine isn’t a challenge shot so much as it is a challenge drink, and its illicitness makes it less of a barroom staple than the rest of these fine drams. But we simply had to include it when talking about regional shot-pounding proclivities, because the fiery clear stuff is closely tied to the lifestyle & culture of Appalachia, and dammit, that’s enough for us. Also, we watch a lot of Justified. Mags Bennett was pretty much the best -- and that was before we knew her character was loosely based on real-life shiner Maggie Bailey, also known as “the queen of the mountain bootleggers.”
Because of its DIY origins, no two batches of moonshine are exactly alike (that’s not counting the commercially produced craft moonshine you occasionally see on liquor store shelves), but the drinking method is pretty much the same all over. Pour a glass (or sip from the jar, if it's yours or you’re amongst friends), tilt your head back, and try not to cough as the white lightning slips down your throat.
What: Whiskey, usually Jameson, followed by a shot of pickle brine
Where: New York City and pockets nationwide
Allegedly invented at Bushwick Country Club (which, if you hadn't already guessed, is not a golfing facility) in 2006, the pickleback is a marvel of modern chemistry. The pickle juice somehow neutralizes the harsh sting of whatever budget brown it follows down the hatch, leaving nothing but a tangy, slightly funky aftertaste, and the overwhelming urge to order another. The pickleback fad raced across the country throughout the mid-aughts and has lost some steam since, but in New York City it's remained the shot of choice, probably because no one can quite decide whether they love it or hate it. Which, when you think about it, makes the pickleback a lot like New York itself, really.
The Prairie Fire
What: Tequila laced with hot sauce
Where: Texas, plus much of the South- and Midwest
Precious little documentation exists on the origin of the Prairie Fire, beyond a bare-bones Wikipedia page that suggests it originated in the mid-'70s Midwest as a punishing make-good on lost bar bets. Back then, it was supposedly done by dousing whiskey with Tabasco, but we've only ever seen it done with tequila.
Because there's no real way to confirm that genesis story, we're going with what we know it to be, which is cheap, clear, cheap tequila splashed with hot sauce and tossed back straightaway (no salt, lime, or shenanigans). With the decline of the tequila popper -- a '90s fad combo of the liquor slammed together with 7Up -- this presentation is your best bet for blocking out that wretched agave sting (albeit with another, slightly-less-wretched sting of Tabasco).
What: Spiced whiskey liqueur with a deep history in the Deep South
Where: These days nationwide, but it was invented in New Orleans
SoCo's lithograph-ish label has been such a familiar sight across the country for so long that even its biggest fans are sometimes surprised to learn that it was born in a Big Easy barroom in 1871.
From there, the sweet-and-sour brown booze headed North to St. Louis, where it won a few medals at the 1906 World's Fair and ingratiated itself with the local livers via the St. Louis Cocktail (peach juice & SoCo). When Gone With the Wind arrived in 1939, SoCo became the main ingredient of a new cocktail called the Scarlett O'Hara, but its palatable tang & variable proofs (it's available at 42, 70, and 100) have given it longer life as a shot. Admittedly, Southern Comfort is less of a regional treasure at this point than the others in this article, but its antebellum roots were too fascinating for us to omit.
What: Italian citrus-vanilla liqueur shot straight-up
If you'll indulge a sustained Godfather metaphor (and you sorta have to, because we're doing it), Jagermeister is like Don Corleone, and Fireball his son, Michael. The older generation of challenge shot, and the new. Tuaca is Fredo -- next in line for the throne, but never quite getting the boost over the hump into true mainstream acceptance. In Colorado, though, this brownish-gold liqueur is an offer you simply can't refuse thanks to early-aughts evangelizing efforts by bartenders & Brown-Forman, the brand's parent company.
Patricia Calhoun did a brief examination of the spirit's rise for Westword, tracing its ski-town popularity back to a pair of bartenders who, much like Bob Carter in Charleston, just kept pouring the stuff (and drinking it themselves) until it became "a Colorado thing." It did, so much so that the brand began advertising with that very slogan despite the fact that it had previously marketed itself as what it was: an old Italian digestif.