How Did the Shot Glass Get It’s Name

Where did the shot glass come from? And why is it called ‘Shot Glass’

There are many legends about the origin of the infamous glass; some dating back to the Wild West and some more recently from the Prohibition. But where did it all begin? Why do we use these small glasses and how did they get their names? Well, I may not have the answer but I do have a few theories.


Let’s start in order, from the very first mention (or as legend has it) of the Shot Glass. The earliest written reference of it was from Dr Jehu Z. Powell’s book, A History of Cass Country Indiana from its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. I’m surprised he found the time to write the book after finishing with that long title. But I digress. In the book, Powell’s recounts a time in 1857 in a small town in Indiana when a local bartender was opening a saloon. His only stock to begin with was a barrel of whiskey. It arrived by train and stayed sitting on the freight platform waiting to be picked up. Another local man, during a heated argument with protesters that were against the opening of the saloon, fired his gun accidentally hitting the barrel and emptying it of its contents. Powell goes onto say that since then, the punters of the saloon, having heard or witnessed the bullet hitting the barrel and the whiskey spilling everywhere, would always ask for a “shot of redeye.” This tale is often dismissed as purely a work of fiction and people claim the shot glass wasn’t introduced until the 1920’s. Bare in mind, Powell’s book was published 1913 and so even if you agree with most people, his book is still the first written reference to ‘shots’.


Keeping with the times, the most popular origin of the shot glass also comes from the Wild West times. The story is that the miners of the towns would never get paid by their employers on time or at all, and so when they went to saloons for a drink, wouldn’t pay with money but would pay with a bullet. “A shot for a shot”, so to speak. However, this tale has been debunked as historians claim the cost of a glass of whiskey would be more than a bullet. Plus, they believe that bartenders at that time would not be able to afford to have these small, single purposed glasses on hand just on the off chance someone would come in with a bullet instead of money for a drink. Theory, busted.


Moving onto the turn of the century and before, some people believe that the name ‘shot glass’ was a term for the glass in which sat on a dining table. It was for the diners to spit the bullet out of the meat that could still be found inside from when it was shot (earlier that day). I like this one the best as it’s so practical. There is nothing to suggest it is or isn’t true and this tale is often over-looked as it’s relatively boring. But if I had to place my bets on which theory was true, I’d put all my money (and a bullet) on this one.


Sticking with this era still, there is one very uncommon origin story that few believe or have even heard of. It is said that the ‘shot glass’ was infact not made for drinking or holding spat-out bullets. No, that it’s actual purpose was to hold a quill when it wasn’t being used. It would be placed nib down in buckshot inside the glass to keep it moist. Nonetheless, this is the most debunked theory as ‘quill’ experts have explained that one, the shape of a shot glass would not support the quill and would damage it – quills were kept horizontal when not in use – and two, keeping the nib moist would rust it. Theory, busted!


Before moving times, there is a small simple theory to slot between. Some believe that the shot glass is merely named after the German chemist, Friedrich Otto Schott, who invented borosilicate glass. Schott – shot. Boring, but plausible.

What we can be certain of for definite was that shot glasses were not commonly used until the 20th century, and not until after the Prohibition ended. These were generally called whiskey glasses. The first documented reference to the shot glass was in the 1940’s and it’s said they were used to regulate the amount of liqueur poured; this was probably to stop bartenders from over-pouring. Could this mean that the shot glass is was and is just a measuring glass? If so, could ‘shot’ just mean small? I’d be extremely let down if this was how the shot glass came about. That it is simply a measuring glass, name and purpose, and has no cool history behind it.111854

Of course I’m fully aware that the alternatives to the shot glass are jiggers or the pony, both measuring tools used in bars. So it would make sense if the shot glass was simply another name for these measuring glasses. But that would be so boring.

So I don’t put a dampen on things, I have one last origin story to keep your hopes up that the shot glass isn’t just a measuring glass. This last one is ridiculously simple but would make sense as it starts with a Fraternity. It derives from the ‘firing glass’, a much older style of glass. It is said that the way the shot glass got its name is from when Fraternity brothers would toast with these glasses and slam them down onto the table; the noise would sound like a shot being fired. Thus, coining the name.


Whatever you choose to believe, all signs point to the shot glass getting it’s name because of its small size and purpose of measuring alcohol. But let’s not be boring that way. So I will continue to believe that all the shot glass origin stories are true and it has had a long, eventful life and will continue to bring us Jager and Whiskey shots for a long time to come.


Click here if you’re interested in buying a shot glass, look no further. Plus, if you have another origin story for the shot glass or want to tell us your favourite one, tweet us @drinkstuff with the #ShotGlassStories. Thanks for reading!

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