Have you ever wondered why we tap our shot glasses on the bar before throwing one back?
Yeah, I wondered, too.
Is it a Milwaukee thing? A Wisconsin thing? Or does this tradition expand beyond state borders?
The Google offers some ideas, but they didn’t really add up. Some suggest that it’s a way to toast the dearly departed, and it’s less wasteful than “pouring one out” … but does your great great grandpa really want you to wake him up in heaven every time you slam a slot of tequila?
Others speculate it’s a way to recognize the bartender for his or her service. That kind of makes sense, but customers tap their shots whether or not the bartender is participating – or even watching.
I even found this unlikely explanation: “In Ireland, it was believed that liquor contained spirits that might be harmful if consumed, and tapping the glass dispelled those spirits.”
It all sounds a little random to me. So I asked a few Milwaukee bartenders, as well as ones farther out, why they think we participate in this ritual at the corner tavern.
Paul Kennedy, who bartends at The Newport and Creed’s Foggy Dew, says he noticed this tradition about 15 years ago. He says he asked customers why they did it but never got a definitive answer.
“The most common answer I’ve been given is it’s in honor of a friend/loved one who is no longer with us,” he says. “I’ve also been told it’s a salute to the bartender. That’s sweet but salutes don’t pay the electric bill. I refuse to do it. For all I know it could be a black magic ritual and a way to conjure up evil. That’s how we ended up with Ron Johnson in the Senate.”
“I’ve always thought it was a sign of respect for the bar and/or the bartender,” suggests Nate Tomzcuk, who used to bartend at the Safe House and Fanatics Sports Central, but cut his teeth bartending in Manitowoc. "Just like people clink their glasses with their cocktails/drinks or pour a little on the floor for their dead peeps.”
Nomad bartender Sammy Mentkowski suggests a different reason, one that I am taking with a shaker of salt and a lime.
“It all dates back to the early juke joints, where sawdust was placed on the dance floor for easy cleaning should the necessity arise,” he says. “After particularly raucous wang dang doodles, sawdust particles would fill the air covering everything in the vicinity including the glassware. Tapping the glass on the bar was a way to remove sediment before taking a gulp of that sweet dancing juice.”
"It’s one tap on the bar for me," says Amanda Wisth, who bartended at Joey's Yardarm in Racine. "When I was behind the bar and throwing them back with patrons, it was one tap, a wink, and a raise of the glass. To thank them for the (many) shots. As a patron, whether the bartender is joining in or not it’s the same: one tap, a wink and a raise of the glass to thank them for their service. Whether they see it or not, that good energy never hurts."
Amy Freeze had always heard while slinging drinks at bars and supper clubs, it all comes down to gratitude. A shot tap, a nod of the head, a silent thank you to the bartender. “I do like the idea of toasting your past, with your future. Sure. I’ve poured one out for a homie. We all have, right? The shot tap means so many different things to different people and that’s what truly makes it unique and well-loved by so many."
Emily Milquet, the owner of Manor on Main, a supper club in Wausaukee about three hours north of Milwaukee, admits she doesn’t know why people do it, but liked the Internet’s explanation of showing respect to the bar.
So, she thought about it a little more, and came up with this explanation:
“Well, when I take a shot I generally cheers and tap everyone else’s shot glass as a way of including and thanking them,” she says. “The reasoning would be tapping it on the bar would be the same as saying cheers to the establishment.”
Hmm. This still sounds iffy to me, so I expanded my search for answers, and apparently, this isn’t just a Wisconsin tradition.
Diane Dowland, who once owned the Monkey Bar in Milwaukee and now lives in Arizona, sees it out west, too.
"I’ve seen both: the one tap and the double tap. I was told that the double tap is one for the bartender, one for someone who is no longer with us. In Wisconsin, you’re doing shots with the bartender, so there it's is your 'cheers to the bartender.' In states like Arizona where the bartender is not legally allowed to drink behind the bar, the one tap is a frequent acknowledgment to the one serving you the shot, since they cannot partake with you."
By the way, Dowland says a Wisconsin bartender is practically a celebrity in Arionza.
“'You can drink while you work? Inconceivable,' and 'how are you even able to count your drawer at the end?' I tell them how the main requirement when hiring a bartender in Wisconsin is that they can handle their alcohol. Even more so than how they look in TikTok leggings or whether they have a boob job. Weird!"
But the most stoic explanation comes from former Seattle bartender Jonny Cragg, who has served drinks around the world. Sadly, he remains stumped.
“Short answer: I have no idea,” he says. “Longer speculative answer: It’s a declaration of intent, a commitment to self harm in the name of hedonism.”
So there you have it. Kind of. The answer: no one really knows. Bottoms up!
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.