The shot glass—essential, and essentially unchanged, for centuries.  (photo by Oliver Hoffman)

They’re everywhere. You’ll find them at pubs, bars, saloons, and especially at the cheesy souvenir stands dotting the highways and byways across the country. Whether proclaiming your favorite liquor brand, sporting a silly slogan, or plastered with the image of a treasured tourist attraction, a single undeniable truth transcends the shot glass’s shabby chic: nobody knows its origin.

Ask a dozen scholars, and you’ll get as many theories, all based on fragmented anecdotes and folklore. The modern shot glass, with its heavy base and thickly flared sides, holds between one and two ounces. Graduated or not, it’s used much like a jigger to measure pours or to serve liquor. The term “shot” seems to have originated in 17th century Britain, when it appeared in ousted British Royalist Presbyterian Reverend Oliver Heywood’s diary, where he used it to describe a measure of liquor.

Urban legends abound, providing many fanciful origins of the eponymous glass. One holds that olden-day writers filled the glass with lead “shot,” creating a stand for their quill pens once finished writing. Another claims that Old-West surgeons used the glasses to hold bullets surgically removed from those who’d been “shot.” Perhaps the most romantic claim explains that during the late 1800s, a Colt .45 pistol cartridge cost about twelve cents, roughly the same as a pour of whiskey. A cowhand, short on cash, could trade a cartridge (or “shot”) for a drink, placing it in the “shot” glass. One theory, favored by many elites and whiskey snobs, postulates that it’s an Americanization of renowned glassmaker Friedrich Otto Schott’s name.

Whatever its name, whiskey glasses form the American 19th century emphasized function over form. The short, flared glass was ideal for whiskeys of the era. Modern whiskey glasses capture volatile esters carrying the aroma, allowing greater appreciation of complexities and nuances, but in those days, whiskey was foul-smelling and rough, best consumed quickly. The shot glass’s shape and size facilitated the need for rapid ingestion with minimal odor. That need seems the most likely source of its name—in honor of shooting that fiery fluid down the hatch!