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How the Jell-O Shot Went From Collegiate Party Favor to Craft Cocktail Companion

Considering the rise of craft jelly shots.

Whitney Adams

With its wobbly demeanor and slippery texture, it’s easy to imagine Jell-O as the punchline to some sort of long running culinary gag.

There’s the scientist who tested Jell-O for brainwaves—and found that they’re almost identical to that of an adult human.

There’s yet another scientist who was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize (a spoof on the Nobel Prize in recognition of achievements that "cannot or should not be reproduced") for inventing blue Jell-O.

There’s Jell-O’s comical rainbow-hued spectrum of colors and flavors that have dotted supermarket shelves for over 100 years, ranging from old faithful options (cherry, orange) to experiments that were practically set up to fail (maple syrup, Italian salad).

Even as the frequent butt of jokes, Jell-O’s role as a national touchstone is undeniable. By the mid-20th century, Jell-O had become one of the first mass produced foods to transcend class, generations and geography. Practically every American able to consume quasi-solid foods today has felt the sensation of a Jell-O cube wriggling around on his/her tongue, whether squeezed from a cafeteria cup or scooped from a fruit-speckled bowl of church picnic Jell-O salad.

While initially tethered to the apron-clad domestic sphere, it wasn’t long before Jell-O’s less family-friendly alter-ego burst onto the scene—the Jell-O shot.

According to Jell-O lore that’s likely as shaky as the substance itself, gelatin-based shots were first crafted by satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer, who penned tongue-in-cheek tunes about chemical elements for trippy 1970s children’s show The Electric Company. Always a prankster, in 1956 Lehrer and a co-conspirator replaced the water in orange gelatin with vodka as a work around to their Army base’s "no alcohol" rule.

"We settled on vodka in orange Jell-O … same recipe as on the box, only with vodka instead of the cold water," Lehrer claimed. "We filled little paper cups with the final product, took them into the base past the guards, and nobody said anything."

Little did Lehrer know that his humble creation would become the kind of indulgence that would be rapid-fire slurped by college students, completely redefining the public perception of gelatin’s versatility.

Dirtying up Jell-O with liquor was a subversive move in and of itself, transforming a suburbanite "aw, shucks" dessert table staple into a slippery shot for the boozy masses. Almost overnight, Jell-O morphed from poodle skirt-clad Sandra Dee at the beginning of Grease to head-to-toe leather-jumpsuit-wearing Sandy, stubbing out a cigarette with a perfectly arched open-toe pump. (Let’s not even get started on the cultural complexities of Jell-O wrestling, which—unsurprisingly—arrived on the scene around the same time.)

And now, in line with the recent craft cocktail boom, bartenders are attempting to once again wobble Jell-O’s public image in a new direction—this time towards highbrow imbibers.

... there remains a commitment from the next generation of jello shot craftspeople to utmost quality while retaining a playful quirkiness.

"We've been doing ‘craft’ jello shots for the last three years or so," said Jeff Seymour, bar manager of Portland’s Interurban. "We wanted to do something that the cocktail community could get behind, but would also be approachable for our normal neighborhood clientele and the weekend masses. Our idea was to turn classic cocktails that bar enthusiasts have always loved into jello shots while simultaneously exposing a hundred-year-old cocktail to the average drinker who might not have ever ventured out of their ‘whiskey-coke’ comfort zone. It’s nerdy and approachable at the same time."

The gourmet jelly shot trend started to find its footing around the early 2000s, but was largely relegated to one-off novelty status rather than nightly bar menu staple. Curiously, there was an initial resistance to associate the new wave of gelled, edible cocktails with the Jell-O shots of collegiate tailgates, instead likening them to upgraded aspics, gelées and the (then booming) molecular gastronomy trend.

"Inspiration came not from what you might recall as the Jell-O shot, but from the jelly shots served at the chic Bar du Plaza Athénée on Avenue Montaigne in Paris," professed a 2007 Los Angeles Times article, describing the muse for a new wave of "jelly shot samplers" as far more French than frat house. "Slices of layered jelly shots are served on clear glass plates [at Bar du Plaza Athénée] along with long wooden skewers for picking up the gelées."

Photo by Whitney Adams

While such pomp and circumstance might seem worthy of eye rolls in today’s far less stuffy cocktail climate, there remains a commitment from the next generation of jello shot craftspeople to utmost quality while retaining a playful quirkiness. The twinning of these often antithetical philosophies has been able to lure in drinkers from untapped nether-regions of the drinking community, with barely post-collegiate party girls and curious spirits enthusiasts alike equally eager (or at least, willing) to try high-end jigglers that split the difference between their comfort zones.

"The same groups of young drinkers who used to be upset that they couldn't get a Jägerbomb now come in and ask for cocktails they have only tried in jello form," said Seymour. "It's pretty cool when I see twenty-three-year-olds now introducing their friends to Aviation and Pegu Club cocktails."

For young adults, jello shots feed directly into the same kind of hyper-nostalgic craving that reruns of Full House and the recent revival of bucket hats seems to sate. It’s a familiar setup with a more elegant foundation, hammering in on both the "young" and "adult" parts with equal intensity.

For young adults, jello shots feed directly into the same kind of hyper-nostalgic craving that reruns of Full House and the recent revival of bucket hats seems to sate.

"For myself—as a working adult and millennial—I want things on demand, and I don’t have time to make jello shots anymore," said Freya Estreller, co-founder of year-old Ludlow’s Cocktail Co., the first-ever line of craft cocktail jelly shots. After launching ice cream sandwich company Coolhaus in 2009, Estreller saw the jello shots space as a relatively untouched market inside the spirits industry that easily hit a similarly sentimental vein as her frozen creations.

"These are shelf stable, so they’re just ready to go. We’re seeing people buy them and sneak them into a concert or movie theater or sporting event. Our whole ethos is that we like doing fun, crazy things. If it’s not unique, why do it? For us, the jelly shots seemed like a natural fit."

Each jelly shot is 30 proof and all natural, with cocktail concoctions ranging from Margarita (made with 100 percent agave blanco tequila) to Lemon Drop (the current best seller). "Most jelly shots out there use ‘neutral grain spirit’ because it’s cheaper," said Estreller. "We said, ‘If we’re doing an Old Fashioned jelly shot, let’s use actual bourbon.’ The rum in our Planter’s Punch is two-year barrel-aged from Trinidad. All the spirits are probably way better than they even need to be."

Even with the vastly improved quality of spirits, the unescapable gelatinous texture of Jell-O will ensure that the edible shots never get too high-and-mighty. Instead, Jell-O will simply continue to tumble stickily into yet another new phase of its culinary life—laughing all the way.

First image from Facebook/LudlowsCocktail Co.

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