16 Feb Shooters, Nips, or Mini-Bottles – There’s Much to Learn About Those Small Alcohol Shots, Whatever You Call Them
by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap
Walter and I were in Total Wine & More the other day – I guess that isn’t that surprising. We were in the bourbon section and so a large display of those small bottles of spirits, like the ones you get on the airplane, or at least you used to. The banishment of alcohol on airplanes expired on Jan. 22, 2022, but not the mask mandate, omicron delayed the mask portion of that.
Anyway, back to the Total Wine aisle. I started to wonder about those little bottles. Are they good for something other than plane rides? And what is their actual name? It turns out that you can find them around everywhere. As to what they are called, that’s a bit longer explanation.
The common 50ml bottle (1.7 ounce) can be used for hard spirits, liqueurs, or even wine (rarer). Most wine mini-bottles are usually 187-200 ml, making them 3x the size of a miniature bottle, and could hardly be confused with a true nip bottle. For that reason, somewhere along the way they picked up the name shotski. I like that name, and it’s the one I adopted for the mini-bottles (not to be confused with the skis that hold shot glasses for 3-4 people at once – shotskis). However, they can also be called shooters or travel bottles or min-bottles, or in the northeast and Scotland – nips.
It’s not surprising that Scotland would be in on new ways to carry around bottles of alcohol, but the mini-bottle actually started in Ireland, at the John Power & Son Irish Whiskey Company. Beginning in 1889, Power started putting some of their very expensive Irish Whiskey (this type of whiskey was one of the priciest spirits at the time) to either 1) provide the owner family’s coachmen with a shot to keep them warm but also keep them sober, or 2) for their distillery workers to have the ability to try the product they were making. Whichever reason it was, it started a trend even if it was decades before the first commercial airplane or hotel minibar.
The 1960s and 70s were really the prime time for shotskis, with airlines once handing them out for free and hotels stocking minibars. Later, some states had changes in rules for nips (Utah, Texas, etc.) based on basic alcohol laws and issues of the alcohol being used in the production of illicit drugs. Heck, shotskis have been banned in Utah since 1990.
The sales of shooters are impressive; millions and millions of bottles each year. Maine is a representative state in this aspect, and has started to charge a 5-cent deposit for miniature bottles to cut down on the littering. In 2019, 10 million nips were sold in Maine, and 40% of those were Fireball. On the other hand, South Carolina has seen a huge drop off in sales since 2006. Before that, all bar mixed drinks were required to be made with mini-bottles!
Here in Indiana, Walter bought a bunch of spirits shotskis at Total Wine to give out with Christmas gifts, but shotskis do have other functions. Recently, the popularity of high-end bourbons has given the drinker too many choices to make for a stocked bar. If you purchased a full bottle of all the bourbons to try to find one you really enjoy, you could end up spending up thousands of dollars on things you don’t like.
But, if you bought a mini-bottle of every bourbon you wanted to try out, you could still afford a regular sized bottle of your favorite. True, you probably end up paying more per ounce in the shotski size, but definitely save in the long run. There are even some subscription packages that will send you few bourbon shooters a month for you to learn what you really like (Shots Box for example) – of course then they offer you full bottles at a good mark up.
Besides acting as tasters for different bourbons, nips have several other uses. Those of lower means purchase them at the checkout of their local package store because that’s what they can afford, and easy mixing of a cocktail in places without a full stocked bar means that miniatures are a great aid. Walter uses them for stocking stuffers and for party favors. Plus, she goes all crafty to find uses for the bottles once empty.
Miniature bottles can have a utilitarian shape and design, but many of the have designs that replicate their larger versions. Because of this, they are quite collectible and societies and clubs do exist just for shotskis (although they probably don’t like me calling them shotskis). One of the biggest clubs is the Midwest Miniature Bottle Collectors. I was surprised that I hadn’t come across them before, but then I found out that despite their name, they are based in Washington state.
Smaller in size than most of the mini-bottles you normally come across are the Underberg digestifs that have been very popular in some bars and breweries (Black Circle, Loom, Hop Station, and A Taproom for instance) for years. Casey at Hop Station Craft Beer Bar told me, “Underbergs are a must have in a craft beer bar. The sell better later in the evening after people drink sours. The people that know, know. But it is a lot of hand selling. To be honest, the staff do more ‘undies’ than anyone else.” It’s true, and while there might not be clubs for collecting Underberg bottles and caps, some bars have very impressive assemblage.
Underbergs contain just 0.67 ounces each, but they come in at a whopping 88 proof, which might account for why they are so popular. They are made of herbs from 43 different countries and are meant to settle the stomach, but they do well for giving you a buzz when all you choose to drink is Hamms.
Another digestif, or bitters as they are both advertised, is Fernet-Branca. This is a typical 50 ml bottle, and goes off at a slightly lower 39% ABV. This nip has a nickname all its own, “the bartender’s handshake.” People behind the bar revere Fernet as a shift drink, either straight or mixing it with liqueur or spirit. Once again, it’s a matter of if you know, you know – bartenders hold these for each other, and when a bartender shows up at your bar, you’re likely to slip one to them. In fact, when a person passes their bartender certification test, Ferent is the usual drink of congratulations.
Whether it’s digestif bitters or high-end bourbon, shotskis serve a function in the economy of alcohol. Find a way to use them to your benefit and that of others, and let them help you investigate and enjoy craft spirits all the more. Craft beer doesn’t really have a parallel in this area, but I’m not going to be upset that my beer only comes to me in a 16 or 12 ounce can; they’re just the right size for me and they cost about the about the same as an affordable bourbon or even an Underberg (by the ounce). Who knew there was so much to learn about such little bottles – and what do you call them, I’m sticking with shotski.