These days, I don’t get on a plane without a few nips on me. Before I head to the airport, I pop into my local liquor store, dig my hand into a plastic tub and pick out a couple fruity, neon-accented mini-bottles of vodka. A blue Smirnoff Sours Berry Lemon, a pink Ruby Red Deep Eddy — it barely matters. When nips are a dollar each, the stakes are low.
If you’re not from New England, the word “nip” is the regional slang for a tiny bottle of booze, usually 50 ml in size. Some might call it a miniature, a mini, a shooter or a shot, but I’d guess most people don’t have a name for it. They only know the nip as what alcohol comes in when you’re on an airplane.
Therein lies its beauty. The nip is the lowbrow version of a wine tasting or a flight of craft beer: It turns a commitment buy like Fireball into a risk-free treat. Even when I’m not traveling, nips are a regular component to my drinking routine: I’ll store a few in my bag on a night when I don’t want to drop $15 on a weak cocktail, or keep them in my clutch at a fancy work event.
It’s thought that these bottles originated as tasters in the mid-1800s. The term nip likely comes from the Low German word nipperkin and was used as early as 1796. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s, with the advent of the hotel minibar and an increase in commercial flights, that the nip really became a thing. The exact history of the minibar is unclear, but the first hotel to feature one in-room is said to be the Madison in Washington, D.C., or the Hong Kong Hilton. In any case, the minibar made lots of extra cash for Conrad and Co. In 1974, the year minibars were introduced to that Hilton, in-room drink sales increased 500 percent.
Speed up to the aughts and you find that between 2007 and 2012, minibar revenue fell by 28 percent. Some hotels are phasing them out entirely or, at the very least, overhauling them. “We haven’t been having lots of sales, so products have been expiring, which of course is company loss,” says Anna, an employee at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey in Los Angeles. “We’re in the process of changing the products.” Currently, the Ritz-Carlton’s minibar contains things like $5 chips and $42 half-bottles of wine. Their nips, while slightly higher-end (Herradura and Tito’s), go for $10 a piece. While these prices might not be much worse than what you’d shell out on a flight, hotels are finding that customers are more willing to drink at the hotel bar or run down to a local convenience store instead. On a flight, of course, there’s a captive market.
Meanwhile, on planes, people love to be drunk, and pouring liquor from a glass bottle into a shot glass on a turbulence-ridden flight isn’t easy. Nips were the natural solution: pre-portioned, easy to store and difficult to break. Today, booze is the biggest source of in-flight revenue for airlines, and liquor remains far more popular than beer or wine. Tricia Johnson, a 25-year-old flight attendant for a small charter airline, tells me that mini bottles are “easier to stock and easier to make drinks with. Galleys are small and everything needs to be as space-efficient as possible.” While she calls them minis, she’s noticed variations in what her passengers call them depending on the region they’re serving.
For decades in South Carolina, though, they were an annoying restriction: Up until 2006, drinks at bars could only be made from nips. While this offered a standardized alcohol quantity of 1.7 ounces, it is extremely cost-prohibitive, limiting in choice and an awful waste of plastic. Though some nips are still sold in glass or even cans, the majority of cheaper ones are not.
It’s this plastic problem that has driven some states to propose banning nips entirely, like in Maine, where Fireball nip sales exceeded full-size purchases four to one. Empty Fireball nips were such a prevalent source of litter that ultimately, the cost of the mini whiskey was doubled along with a $0.05 deposit. (Fireball seems to be the most common nip choice across New England. My uncle, a wetlands scientist in Massachusetts, says that he finds as much as 10 times more Fireball empties as he does any other alcohol-based trash.)
Some places have banned nips entirely. Chelsea, Massachusetts, a town outside of Boston, banned the sale of the 50 mL containers in February. Even areas of Boston restrict the sale of single servings of alcohol, including individual beers. Chicago bans the sale of small quantities of liquor between midnight and 7 a.m.
In an op-ed for the Suffolk Journal, Mikaela Linder explains her belief that restricting access to nips is better than an all-out ban. She thinks they should only be banned in areas that are “prone to have high levels of public intoxication,” as Boston has done. “The convenience and relatively cheap price of nips make it readily available to the homeless population, which has very high rates of substance abuse and alcoholism,” she says. “While some argue that it may be inconvenient that you have to travel a bit farther to get nips, regulating where they are sold is ultimately for a better cause. By making it harder for the general public and homeless population to access nips and other cheap, small amounts of alcohol, the number of public intoxication incidents will hopefully decrease.”
The key word for Linder, of course, is hopefully. There is no conclusive evidence that restrictions on the hours which alcohol can be sold actually helps reduce consumption, though some studies suggest a correlation with liquor-store availability and crime or injuries. Still, it’s clear what Linder’s (and other critics’) true gripe is: poverty and homelessness. Prohibiting individual servings of alcohol won’t actually reduce drinking. Rather, people will simply resort to buying larger quantities, or purchasing smaller quantities elsewhere. Increasing restrictions on alcohol sales is then another way of policing homeless and low-income populations.
For the most part, people aren’t thinking much about the nip. But whether you’re flying first class and staying in luxury hotels or you’re down to your last dollar and just want to take the edge off, nips have played a role in nearly every drinker’s life. And for my family of often-irresponsible drinkers, the nip plays the key role of providing some control. My dad loves them because, ingeniously, they’re pre-measured. “It’s easier to keep track of how much you drink — just count your bottles,” he says. “Only $1 each! If you have a big bottle, you lose track.”