Culture

Jell-O Shots Across the Bow!

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01/17/14
In the Magazine
The remains of 'Jello shots' lay in the trash bin on a party bus in New York early February 18, 2006. The bus, which fits up to 45 people, has a booming stereo system, disco lights, glittering chrome, mirrors, comfortable seating and comes stocked with soft drinks, water and ice. Riders have to bring their own food and alcohol. Seth Wenig/Reuters

The interior of the Citizen pub is all dark-wood rafters and dim lighting, with occasional, knowing touches of kitsch (like blended-drink tiki nights) that signal its "retro supper club" vibe is deliberate, not sadly dated. Well-dressed young Bostonians mingle over trendy tavern fare or sample seafood from the raw assortment, waiting for the bar - stocked with more than 200 whiskeys and Fernet on tap - to deliver their mixologist-perfected drink of choice - a Jell-O shot?

The Citizen, and its sister bar, the Franklin, are part of the newest trend in cocktail creation: jellied drinks. Made with gelatin, these creative cocktails offer a boozy twist on the classic Jell-O mold. "I started out toying around with jellied drinks for special occasions and event nights, but now I have them on the bar menu at least once a week," says Citizen's bar manager, Joy Richard. "People love them. I keep thinking I'm gonna wear out the Jell-O shot thing, but every time I make a batch, people go nuts."

Richard isn't the only one jumping on the jellied drink train. Benjamin Newby - a Chicago-based mixologist who consults for several regional bars, and whose "Bombay General" won him GQ magazine's "America's Choice Most Inspired Cocktail" award in 2010 - is enthusiastic about turning drinking into a semi-solid experience. "I've experimented with dozens of different jellied drinks so far, but I think my favorite has to be the Cosmowobbleton, which I created for Obscura cocktail lounge in Cincinnati" Newby says. He concedes that the drink - a jellied version of the classic cosmopolitan garnished with handmade triple sec pearls, "may not seem highbrow enough to some people in the cocktail world, but that's part of what I love about it. It's taking a drink tons of people like, and making it more fun. Plus, the name: Cosmowobbleton? How amazing is that?"

Hipster haunts nationwide are starting to serve jellied cocktails at special events, as boozy dessert options or as regular menu items to entice patrons who are looking for something more interesting than another perfectly executed "classic cocktail." Restaurants in Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; Chicago; Cincinnati; Boston; and New York have started offering the drinks, and a handful of cookbooks, cocktail recipe guides and blogs featuring jellied drinks have been published recently.

Like so many food and beverage trends, the drinks play off diners' nostalgia for childhood (or, in this case, perhaps college) favorites, updating the original with higher-quality ingredients, more interesting flavor combinations, and artistic presentations a generation of Top Chef viewers have come to expect. Richard regularly serves jellied versions of citrus-heavy drinks - such as aviations or daiquiris - in fruit rinds, and Newby has experimented with everything from layering drinks (an instructional video on YouTube shows him creating a "deconstructed jelly shot sidecar") to suspending fruit in the middle of his creations.

A new pre-made cocktail purveyor, Ludlows Cocktail Co. will launch its signature product, a five-pack of jelly shots in one of five flavors (old-fashioned, margarita, rum punch, Meyer lemon and Moscow mule) this spring.

After several successes with jellied drinks at catered events, including a big holiday party,  the idea for a consumer version of the cocktails seemed obvious to co-founder Freya Estreller: "You can't really buy prepackaged jelly shots, or if you do find them, they aren't based on actual cocktails, they don't have sophisticated flavor profiles, and they don't use all-natural ingredients."

Though Richard, Newby and Estreller agree that most any cocktail can be given a jellied alter ego, they caution that some recipes aren't well-suited to a gelatinous rethinking. Richard says early attempts to create drinks with cream liqueurs, such as Baileys or Rumchata, were "total failures. My first few tries with Rumchata had this gritty, granular texture that was really unappealing, and totally overshadowed the flavor of the cocktail," Richard recalls. "That recipe needed a lot of tweaking."

Richard has also had to retire her whiskey-sour jellied cocktail: "They were delicious, but in jelly form, a whiskey sour has a sort of yellowish color, which, when you serve it in a shot glass - or worse, a Dixie cup - ends up looking a lot like a urine sample."

Estreller has also had a few notable misses. "We made a mescal bloody Mary once, which we thought would be amazing, but it just came out ketchupy. It felt like it should be a garnish for steak and eggs."

But as Newby notes, gelatin is a "very forgiving" medium that allows creative mixologists to play with "all the senses" of their ever-more-sophisticated clientele.

Well, as sophisticated as anyone who has swapped her sidecar for an elementary school lunch-box staple can be.

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