Short, sharp shots: how the micrococktail revolution is transforming spirits

As much as he loves a martini, Felix Cohen finds it a drink with some obvious drawbacks. “You have to drink it quite fast because it only really works when it’s very cold. And when you look at a serving with three shots of gin in, or navy-strength gins at 55% or 60% [abv], sometimes it’s just a bit much,” says the co-owner, head bartender and creative brain at the cocktail bar Every Cloud in Hackney, east London.

Cohen’s solution? The dinky £5 martiny, a 40ml mini-martini that offers that “refreshing strength and flavour profile” without flooring you after one drink.

Cohen regularly changes his gins, and premixes martini in batches for his 40-people capacity, “science-driven” bar. He carefully calibrates its dilution (the 15% to 20% abv that would normally occur as you stir your martini with ice), then serves the drinks “colder than ice-cold” from an old Jägermeister machine. He has also served flights of miniaturised negronis at his pop-up Manhattans Project and sees such diddy drinks as the perfect way to explore flavours, relatively affordably.

Cohen isn’t the only bar owner experimenting with the so-called “shot-tail”: internationally, a small but growing number of bars are adding compact cocktails or “craft shooters” to their menus. Many of these are smaller versions of well-known cocktails: London’s Cub serves a £6 miniature martini, while, in Brooklyn, the Mood Ring bar carries several speciality $5 “shots” that are closer to micrococktails. Its aux cord riffs on the bloody mary with vodka, tomato juice, sriracha hot sauce and tabasco.

Similarly, the Meatliquor burger restaurants have blurred the lines between the shot and cocktail, with a range of short 75ml mixed drinks more complex than neat spirits. Meatliquor’s pipe dreams, for instance, combines Pernod absinthe, watermelon syrup and lemon juice. Elsewhere this winter, the Shoryu Ramen restaurant group is serving hot 25ml cups of Gekkeikan Junmai sake with gingerbread syrup for £6.

Amanda Schuster, the senior editor-in-chief of the Alcohol Professor website, has encountered such diminutive drinks at New York bars such as Dead Rabbit and BlackTail, usually served as a complimentary welcome: “It’s perfect while perusing the menu. I love the idea of a mini-cocktail as an amuse, but I also think it’s the perfect nightcap – just the right size to end the evening.”

Miniaturising cocktails also makes it easier to serve them with food. At Cub, small versions of its outre cocktails are paired with dishes on the tasting menu. At Bristol’s Ethicurean, its seasonal “sips and sharpeners” have recently included a cocktail of mushroom vodka, maple syrup and chipotle – “Our interpretation of port,” says the manager, Meghan Morrell – a small measure of which was served with its cheese course.

The emphasis on quality and self-control is very different to Britain’s historic relationship with shots. From the first 1960s package-holiday encounters with Italian grappa or Greek ouzo, we never learned to savour our sambuca. For the hardcore who want to get drunk quickly, shots have always been a fast-track to oblivion; more a Bushtucker Trial-type challenge than something to be enjoyed. “A few years ago, there was this weird thing of shots being almost undrinkable. The challenge was that it tasted appalling, like trying to shot super-high-proof Wray & Nephew white rum,” says James O’Hara, who owns several Sheffield bars. These range from the Great Gatsby, a party venue that mixes its own shooters (“We want palatable, interesting flavours”), to the Observer Food Monthly bar of the year, Public. “I don’t know if anyone has ever bought a shot there,” says O’Hara, drily.

The shot – a small measure of a single spirit – has always existed, but the shooter, a short combo of different alcohols, the forerunner to the modern mini-cocktail, is a modern invention. The American drinks historian David Wondrich traces it to the mid-70s kamikaze, equal parts vodka, lime juice and triple sec. Its exact origins are mysterious, but Wondrich thinks the shooter was seen as a way to keep bars relevant in the age of disco, drugs and neon, when classic, full-sized cocktails seemed terribly old fashioned (pardon the pun). In his 1984 novel, Cocktail (inspiration for the Tom Cruise film), Heywood Gould described the kamikaze as: “One of the classic disco cocktails invented by barbiturated teenagers.”

“Drugs made cocktails seem kind of tame, so they had to adapt by getting fancy and weird. Liquor companies started churning out sweet gimmick cocktails featuring fruit juices, dairy, crazy names,” Wondrich told the First We Feast website in 2014. By the 80s, US bars (and many British yuppie bars, too) were busily “building” colourful layered shots such as the B-52, from viscous, sweet liqueurs such as coffee-flavoured Kahlua and the ubiquitous Baileys. Sweet liqueurs had a conveniently long shelf-life and were seen as female-friendly at a time when women had only recently started visiting bars socially, without men. With juvenile names like slippery nipple, blow job or screaming orgasm, these drinks always felt like a fad and would fall out of fashion in the 90s. Only to be replaced by equally childish drinks: the 90s and early 00s saw a huge growth in luminous vodka shots flavoured to taste of not just fruit, but pear drops, bubblegum and other nostalgic flavours from the sweet shop. It has only been in the past decade that the “craft cocktail” movement – with its emphasis on real ingredients, flavour complexity, reviving historic recipes – has taken hold, and the sweetness has been dialled-down.

In short, bartenders got serious – even in the way they tried to impress one another. Bar staff often treat colleagues from rival venues to a shot-sized free drink, a so-called “bartender’s handshake”, and, to an extent, this new wave of mini-cocktails has grown out of that private ritual. Certain drinks gain a cult status among these nerds of the alcohol world. For instance, there is a whole subset of 50:50s or mixed-shots, many using bitter Fernet Branca (“Fernet has nailed it with bartenders,” says O’Hara), which are primarily enjoyed by staff. Cohen has a bottle of Ferrari (half Fernet Branca, half Campari) at Every Cloud, from which he dispenses shots to industry friends and regulars.

Other bartenders go a step further. “If I go into another bar I might be offered a ‘snaquiri’,” says Cohen. “You make a full-sized daiquiri, pour it out into four shot glasses, and it’s a nice social thing.” At one time, the now closed Chicago bar Gideon Sweet had a whole menu of “small pours”; batch-made cocktails easily split into shots. Particularly where these drinks are touted as in-the-know, off-menu orders, civilians love to feel they are part of that inner-circle. Whether that means drinking a slam busy at New York’s Up & Up (originally a staff drink of gin and amaro), or ordering – on-request, they are not listed on the menu – mini cocktails at High Water in Dalston, east London.

How far scaled-down cocktails can go is a moot point. They tick every box in terms of what drinks analysts claim are the prevailing trends. People increasingly want fun, Instagrammable drinks that are not too boozy. “Not everyone wants a shot of neat alcohol,” says Matt Grech-Smith, owner of London’s Swingers crazy-golf venues, which serve 50ml shooters. “[This] creates a more enjoyable flavour and appeals to those keeping an eye on their alcohol intake.”

People also want novel experiences with an interesting backstory, which obscure shot traditions feed into. In San Francisco, for instance, the gin bar Whitechapel has imported the Dutch version of the US Boilermaker (beer with a whiskey chaser), with its kopstootje menu of beer and genever shots.

Practically, however, you cannot have too many small made-to-order drinks on a menu. It could really “bog down service”, says Mark Low, lead creative consultant at Mr Lyan Studio. There are those, meanwhile, who believe drinking is heading in the opposite direction. Britain’s 60 Revolution bars may sell 18 flavoured vodka shots but, says its commercial director, Myles Doran: “The most popular serve for flavoured vodka is long. That’s the trend within our business – tall, lower-strength drinks.”

Other big players are circling, however. The Slug & Lettuce pub chain serves a £10.95 “tipsy tapas” of four miniature cocktails. And several spirits, previously famous as cheap Student Union slammers, are smartening up as shots move upmarket. “Jägermeister is doing a huge campaign around serving it at -18°C and savouring it,” says Daniel Woolfson, drinks editor at the Grocer. “Retail brands know the cocktail scene is what’s creating excitement in spirits and they want to be involved.”

Regardless, Cohen is convinced that the shot, in all its potential manifestations, will continue to mutate in interesting ways: “The shot’s never really gone away and it can be great, particularly if you want to control your intake. It’s a very convenient amount of inebriation.” For the cocktail cognoscenti, there will always be times when less is more.