If the Burning Question crew learned one thing during our interminable grad school years, it was that meaning exists in each action and every creation, that cultural identity emanates from the smallest bit of Depression glass to the largest concert. In every product, design or activity rests clues to our values and beliefs.
For instance, you may define the machine gun as an automatic weapon. Those of us who spent far too much time in academic libraries, however, know the machine gun represents the triumph of the industrial world over Victorian individualism.
Thus when we approached Matthew, the Samba Room bartender and poet laureate of Dallas nightlife, with this week's Burning Question--What are our favorite shots?--and he mumbled, "There's something distinctly proletarian about shots," we knew we found a topic worthy of academia.
A shot, according to Matthew, "is like a ritual of brotherhood, a display of solidarity. To say no to a shot is to say no to sex, drugs and rock and roll."
Heavy stuff, indeed.
"It's the momentary illusion of hedonistic abandon," agrees Ian Green, bartender at The Londoner in Addison. "You've reached this zenith of happiness, and then it's back to the boring old drinking. Joy is very fleeting, isn't it? So maybe that's the illusion."
People generally order shots as part of a group celebration, so shooters in essence serve a communal purpose. Mutual imbibing identifies clan members and initiates newcomers, or so we'll report when we turn this column into a major anthropological thesis. "Shots are akin to a toast," says Phil Natale of Steel. "They're a celebration of the moment." Few people knock them back alone. "Mostly when they are in a big crowd, around friends, they start buying shots," confirms Jose Montoya, bartender at Pugsley's Library.
"There's a language to shots," Matthew explains. "It always means something, and it's something done in unison with a group." Thus it's acceptable for bachelorettes to fellate glassware before a crowd of ribald well-wishers. But two executives exulting in a successful IPO? Nope. They best select a shot more appropriate to the occasion.
So if shots speak a language, it's one of the moment: Rangers' relievers holding a lead; spring break; a raise or promotion; the editors sending out paychecks on time. Each of these rarities deserves some form of recognition. Even death or somber recollections call for a quick commemorative drink. "In the negative, you're taking it to wash away pain," Natale points out. "There's really not a middle of the road."
Anything, it seems, calls for a round of shots, especially life's transitional moments. In primitive ritual, clan elders trim off a bit of skin from the tribe member on the verge of adulthood, or carve tattoos into their bodies. According to a Penn State study, of those who consume alcohol on their 21st birthday, men pound an average of 8.8 shots; women 5.61 shots. Bartenders pour an estimated 20 to 30 shots each on weekend nights.
So what do we shoot?
"There are literally thousands of shots," says Eric Keese, bartender at Whisky Bar. "Sometimes the same shot will exist under different names." Other times, the same name refers to distinctly different shots. "Three wise men" indicates a gut-wrenching mix of Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's and Johnny Walker in parts of the country where logic and reason count for something. In Texas, however, the same order calls for Jagermeister, Goldschlager and Rumple Minze--none of which are men, much less wise men. Considering this state idolizes Bush, Perot and Jones, the confusion somehow makes sense.
Other popular shots bear oddly descriptive names, like buttery nipple, kamikaze, red snapper, Russian roulette, Alabama slammer or mind eraser. "Plus the classics are still big," assures Ron Davis, bartender at Cape Buffalo. That means Jagermeister, Rumple Minze, Goldschlager and tequila.
"They're really things you can't savor," Natale says.
But the current hot shots call for a bit of taste or creativity. "The point is that you can get bent and it still tastes good," Davis says. "The Washington apple, the chocolate cake--it's amazing what you can get a shot to taste like if you mix it right." Naturally, the aforementioned drinks taste amazingly similar to their namesakes. The ever-popular lemon drop, too, recalls the sweet-sour candy favored by so many kids in the past. Many bartenders now mix lemon drops with Tuaca, an Italian liqueur, adding subtle hints of vanilla to the tart shot.
Yet not every shot is pleasant. The cement mixer, for instance, a mix of Irish cream and lime juice, coalesces into a disgusting, sticky glob in your mouth. Others, like a diabolical combination of tequila and Tabasco nicknamed prairie fire, exist more as dares than celebratory gestures. "For me, the worst tasting is anything with amaretto," Green says. "It's like drinking fucking perfume."
The most obnoxious shot, at least from a bartender's perspective, is sex with an alligator--a layering of Jagermeister, Midori and Chambord.
"You have to layer it properly," Green complains. "You have to pour the Chambord down the side so it layers on the bottom. If you're real busy, it's a pain in the ass." Bars serve sex with an alligator in a martini glass to accentuate the layering effect. "It looks good, so someone else will want one," Davis reports. "Then you're stuck making them all night."
The most popular shot in Dallas-area bars at the moment is something called a redheaded slut. The Burning Question crew declined offers to try out this current phenomenon, having some experience with its real-life equivalent. Besides, we thought, why gulp down a mix of Jagermeister, schnapps and cranberry juice when each bar we visited offered an array of more attractive bottles--vodka, bourbon, sake, rum and so on. Somehow two seconds of alcoholic bonding failed to measure up to an evening spent savoring quality liquor.
Which brings us back to our original thesis. We're cantankerous, anti-social bastards, and we know it. But normal people exist in defined communities of friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances, and these communities gather meaning from moments of pain, celebration and togetherness.
"It could be a metaphor for life itself," Green concludes. "Life is fleeting, meeting together is fleeting, relationships are fleeting. Shots are fleeting."
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