SOME OF US were finishing off the dregs of forgotten wineglasses at our parents’ parties as soon as we were able to reach them. But for Americans, the first drink we get to have legally, in a bar, is the day we hit that magical age of 21, when, according to the government, we are able to hold our liquor. On that day, it is useless to try to impress the bartender with your sophisticated palate — she knows you only recently got your braces off. So go ahead and order something festive, something playful — something that, for a first bar drink, is sure to go down without too much coughing.

Go for a cake shot.

The “Birthday Cake” shot, also known as the “Chocolate Cake” shot (purists would call it a “shooter” because, technically, the drink is mixed), is a now-classic novelty, a sip of whimsical alcoholic mimicry that any bartender would be happy to make for you if you’re cute enough.

The base note of the drink is usually Frangelico, a hazelnut liqueur from Canale, Italy, that comes in a bottle shaped to look like a Franciscan friar — note the draped arms clasped humbly over a knotted white cord — but you can opt for competitor Fratello instead (also Italian), or even swap in local-ish McMenamin’s/CPR Distillery’s “Phil” hazelnut liqueur (made from Oregon hazelnuts).

To make a classic Birthday Cake shot, you will need one ounce vodka and one ounce hazelnut liqueur, combined in a shot glass; a lemon wedge; and some sugar. Either coat the rim of the shot glass in sugar, or coat the lemon wedge itself; take the shot; and then immediately suck on the lemon. These four ingredients, combined with whatever biological alchemy is in your saliva, will perform some kind of dizzying celebratory reaction and addle your brain into thinking that what you’ve just consumed tastes exactly like a piece of birthday cake.

How is such sorcery achieved? The origins of the Birthday Cake shot are lost to history, but somebody somewhere (maybe a boozy birthday clown, maybe a Frangelico employee) figured out that the tang of the lemon, the hit of sugar and the round body of the hazelnut liqueur mapped onto the tongue the same way as a baked good. This is not a serious drink; it is an amuse-bouche to be downed with a cheer before the real business of first bar-thday drinking begins. And there it would have stayed, if not for Pinterest.

Because Pinterest, unsurprisingly, loves the cake shooter. But rarely will you find the humble shot glass with its sugared lemon wedge in those vibrant pages. No, no; Pinterest users, those lovers of craft stores and glue guns, have fully embraced more adulterated, on-the-nose Birthday Cake shots, made with vodkas themselves flavored like cake, whipped cream, or frosting mixed with white or milk chocolate liqueurs (Godiva is popular).


But the real point is the décor — these shots are festooned with dollops of whipped cream, the rims of the glasses coated in sprinkles instead of sugar, sometimes given a vibrant boost by food coloring. There are shots topped with lighted candles or, if you’re going to be extra about it, sparklers. These are Birthday Cake shots meant to replace, or at least complement, actual birthday cakes, easily mistaken as treats for children.

But then, I maintain that 21-year-olds are still children, and so an alcoholic drink covered in sprinkles is a perfectly fine way to usher in the rest of your (legal) drinking life.