The late 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s were a bizarre and revolutionary time for cocktails.
Classic, herbaceous liqueurs like Benedictine declined in popularity, while sickly-sweet flavored Schnapps surged in popularity. Meanwhile, vodka became America’s spirit of choice.
In the early ’50s, one liquor company hired a sexy female to walk into bars with a pink squirrel attached to a leash. The foxy lady was promoting the “Pink Squirrel” cocktail, a viscous concoction made with pink almond liqueur and creme de cacao. Unsurprisingly, many consider the decades that followed to be the Dark Age of cocktails.
Cocktail writer and historian David Wondrich (Imbibe!, Punch) recently spoke about this ignominious period in cocktail history—and, more specifically, about the rise of the “shooter” (what we know today as the “shot”)—at Golden Cadillac in NYC’s East Village.
Drugs made cocktails seem kind of tame, so they had to adapt by getting fancy and weird.
Wondrich told the packed barroom, “By 1970, all the classic, well-made cocktails were considered old-fashioned and unpopular. Partially due to the rise of recreational drugs, alcohol itself was a less prevalent means of getting fucked up. 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, and crazy names. It was a true era of excess.”
He pointed out that while the drinks being served at this time were “dumb and mostly awful,” the shift in cocktail culture was a positive development because, for the first time in decades, there was a period of cocktail creativity. “The market became flooded with new ideas for the first time in a long time, and old drinks were revised and remixed,” he said.
Before the event, we caught up with Wondrich to learn a bit more about the history of the shooter—that wonderful invention which we’re sure have been the cause of some of your best nights (and worst mornings). Here’s what he had to say about three of the infamous shots from the ’70s and ’80s:
The Kamikaze (1976)
According to Wondrich, the history of the shooter can be traced back to 1976, when the Kamikaze first appeared on the scene.
Heywood Gould, in his 1984 book Cocktail, writes,
[pullquote]”[The kamikaze] is one of the classic disco cocktails invented by barbiturated teenagers. It’s a senseless, infuriating concoction made of equal parts vodka, lime juice, and triple sec…There are no standards for the kamikaze. It has no particular attributes that would distinguish a good kamikaze from a bad one, like a dry martini or a tart gimlet. It exists merely to confer a little cache on these pimpled baboons.”[/pullquote]
Fast forward to 1991, when Larry “Cutty” Cutsail opened a bar in Frederick, MD called P.J. Cahoots. Cutsail’s operation offered 170 different shooters, with classy names like the “Training Bra,” “The Fredneck,” “The Fat Rat’s Ass,” and “The Ganggreen.”
The Training Bra (1981)
The Training Bra was “the color of Windex,” according to Wondrich, “and they would cost a quarter in pretty much any bar, so down the hatch it went.” This particular shooter is a delightful mix of white rum, triple sec or Cointreau, blue Curacao, and 7-Up, shaken and strained into a shot glass.
Wondrich has his own history with shots—back in high school, he enjoyed something called The Snake Bite, which consisted of Yukon Jack Canadian whiskey and frozen lime juice. “It was diabetic shock territory, but nonetheless, we drank it.” Other common ingredients in these new, colorful shooters included crème de banana, “royal” Chambord, and melon-green Midori liqueur.
The Jell-O Shot (1980s)
This brings us to the “final refinement of the shooter” (as Wondrich puts it): the Jell-O shot, which came into full glory in the 1980s.
Wondrich says he really started hearing about the Jell-O shot in 1987. In 1989, trade magazine Beverage Media called Jell-O shots “the new Yuppie trend on the Upper East Side.” By 1990, Esquire was printing Jell-O shot recipes, and in 1993, New York Magazine called Amsterdam Avenue “a desert of Jell-O shot college bars.” Wondrich confirms that this description is pretty damn accurate.
While modern-day Old Fashioned and Manhattan junkies might look down at this era of possibly regrettable cocktail history, Wondrich doesn’t see the ’70s and ’80s—and shots in general—in this light.
“The funny thing about all of these drinks—the shooters, the Jell-O shots, any of this stuff—is you don’t have to make them as badly as they did back then,” he says. “You don’t have to use the same bad ingredients; you can use good ingredients. You can keep a little bit of the humor and the fun, and you can actually make a good drink. I hope we can reclaim from the Dark Ages of mixology. We could use good bartending to save bad bartending.”
Wondrich brought the fun and creativity of ’70s and ’80s cocktail culture to the Golden Cadillac on Sunday night, creating his own shot for the event. “The Gowanus Water” featured Chief Gowanus New-Neatherlands gin, lime juice, green Chartreuse, demarara syrup, and blue curacao. Like the real Gowanus Canal, it looked murky and sludgy. But it tasted damn good.
Golden Cadillac: 13 First Ave (212-995-5151); goldencadillacnyc.com