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Aug 22, 1995

THESE CANDY-LIKE CHUGGERS PACK A POWERFUL SHOT

THE KEEPER OF the shooters is standing guard at a small makeshift bar just inside the door of the Bayou, the popular Virginia Beach club, when you stroll in one Saturday night.

You peruse her offerings. There’s tequila. The familiar Jack Daniels. Beer. And a bottle labeled “Goldschlager,” wrapped around a transparent fluid sparkling with tiny flecks of real gold.

“Try it,” she chirps. “It’s my favorite.” Why not?

Going down, the liquid delivers a blast of cinnamon. Then a sharp slash tears through your nasal passages. Your brain has only a moment to note this before its attention shifts to the blaze that has erupted in your throat. Congratulations. You’ve just joined a growing army of locals who, along with their beer and highballs, make room for “shooters” – syrupy, often brightly hued concoctions of alcohol and sugar.

They seem as much candy as liquor. They’re especially popular with women. They’re big business at many Hampton Roads nightspots.

That’ll be $3.75.

With drinking a major American pastime, it’s easy to see the appeal of tossing back an ounce or two of high-test with a fruity or minty taste. Call it convenience booze.

These candylike chuggers aren’t so harsh as shots of straight alcohol, but their kick is much the same. Usually concocted of fruit juice and two, three or four liquors – often varieties of schnapps – shooters are smoother than the rough medicine favored by cowboys, bikers and Keith Richards.

If you’re a shooter drinker, you’re probably a younger person; these are not Mom’s cocktails.

And if you’re having a shooter, you’re probably sharing the experience. Despite the popularity of cocktail and cordial products, including schnapps, state Alcoholic Beverage Control statistics show retail sales have remained steady over the past five years.

That means that not many twentysomethings are imbibing one shooter after another in the privacy of their homes. It’s a club thing, a night-on-the-town thing, a bonding experience sealed with a belt.

“You never sell just one shooter, ever,” says David, a bartender at Private Eyes in Norfolk. “When you’re having a good time and you wanna have a better time, shooters are always fun.”

Across the room, a tableful of men and women takes on a tray of Buttery Nipples – butterscotch schnapps mixed with Bailey’s. This is a thrice-weekly habit, though the number they order varies.

“Depends on what kind of night we’re having,” says one.

“One night we had 88,” another jokes.

Jim Beam’s Cincinnati-based DeKuyper arm trumpets about 50 cordials, including more than a dozen flavors of schnapps. Its Peachtree schnapps is the country’s best-selling domestic cordial. One of its latest triumphs is After Shock, a liqueur that melds cinnamon and mint.

Although there are one or two such biggies each year, one Bayou bartender says that about 30 shooters are regularly in circulation. The current favorite is the Volleyball: Wilderberry and BluesBerry schnapps, blue caracao, vodka and pineapple juice. The Wild Thing, which continues the tradition of innuendo-laden shooter tags like Buttery Nipple and Sex on the Beach, is also big this summer.

Some staples are enduring. Watermelon shooters. Orange Crush. Woo Woo, composed of vodka, cranberry juice and peach schnapps.

The Bayou runs regular shooter specials. Two bucks for a Blue Bayou or a shot of Jagermeister, a macho favorite that looks like blackstrap molasses and smells volatile enough to burn through the bottom of the cup.

“Why do people drink it?” wonders Jennifer, who’s having a beer at the bar. “It tastes like NyQuil.” Her theory: “It’s got a cool name and it gets you (messed) up.”

Bayou patrons sometimes underestimate a shooter’s muscle. “People think they can drink these all night,” the bartender says, “and they can’t.”

Mike Goodove, chairman of Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Southside Community Action Team, says the promotion of sweet drinks is “still being studied” by his organization.

“It is something you’re gonna look at – how the restaurants and bars are marketing things.”

DeKuyper’s publicity handouts are careful to paint its fruits as adult. One photo depicts a ready-to-swig couple old enough to be the parents of a Bayou regular.

Dr. Roy Williams, an ODU chemistry professor and head of its enological, or wine-studies lab, calls shooters “just a way of getting people involved in alcohol. It’s a terrible way to introduce people to alcoholic beverages.”

He notes that even after one shooter, “your enzymes are saying, `Forget it, I’m not doing anything else.’ ”

That said, the country’s fitness mania may be part of shooters’ appeal. “Creamy drinks went out about two years ago,” one bartender says. “Girls, you know, they’re so health-conscious. It sounds silly – they’re drinking – but they’re into watching their weight. And there are a lot of calories in those things.”

Jell-O shooters, which also represent the gigglingly sexual side of the trend, enjoyed a brief popularity. With the prep time required, many bars don’t bother anymore.

But where old shooters have fallen, new ones have risen to take their place. “For tomorrow,” a distillery handout vows, “DeKuyper is already hard at work creating a future of great new cordial products for you.”

Think of the flavors that might exist by the time the Bayou kids’ kids are ready to partake. Perhaps right now, in a Midwestern lab, some visionary is charting the territory on which a million 21st century collegians will dance, will laugh, will love.