The Siren Song of the Jell-O Shot

The Jell-O shot has mostly been banished to the ghetto of ingenious underage drinking. But there's beauty in that. Regan Hofmann on the surprising origins and nostalgic pleasures of jellied alcohol.

My first experience with a Jell-O shot was, I believe, fairly typical: My body rebelled. It was the early days of college, and the roller-coaster ride of cheap booze and bad decisions lay mainly in front of me, that first big drop still a few months away. So, when confronted with a solidified spirit, a cocktail gained physical manifestation, my systems froze up, unable to process the information being presented to them. Was it dessert, or drinking? Why did it feel like one thing, but taste like another? It was my first mouthful of a cultural force.

Jell-O shots are edible synesthesia, a conflicting set of signals that, for a moment, fool the brain into thinking it can taste sound or feel flavor. They trade in the same jolting confusion and delight patented by high-end molecular chefs like Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal, stripped down to an unabashed pursuit of pleasure, sugar and booze. Much as those dishes are developed to evoke specific sense memories (Blumenthal’s notorious Sound of the Sea pairs fresh seafood and pickled seaweed with an iPod playing surf sounds and a mini beachscape), Jell-O shots trigger a flood of childhood flashbacks—sore throats and Thanksgiving salads, school lunches and special treats—paired with the muscle memory of taking shots, reserved for a particular kind of night out. For those few fleeting seconds, as the shot slurps and shimmers down the throat, we are young and dumb and having fun.

For their extreme efficiency as an alcohol delivery system (in scientific studies of the effects of alcohol on rats, mini Jell-O shots are placed in their cages as a means to get them to over-consume) Jell-O shots have been resigned to the ghetto of underage drinking, the world of vodka-soaked tampons and boozy gummy bears from which a thousand tut-tutting New York Times think pieces and hysterical morning-show segments have sprung. Nearly everyone’s first encounter with the phenomenon happened in that teetering roller-coaster window, after all, and its popularity is highest among teenagers; one 2012 study found that 14.5 percent of all the alcohol consumed by a group of 16 20-year-olds came in jellied form. But long before there were bored teenagers looking for the latest Vine-worthy rush, people were dancing to the Jell-O shot’s siren song.

An apocryphal origin story pins the solidified shooter to parody song king Tom Lehrer, who in the 1950s was a military pencil-pusher. When restrictions prevented him from bringing alcohol onto the base for a holiday party, he struck upon the idea to solidify his vodka in a block of Jell-O, sneaking drinks in under the guise of a harmless dessert. Jell-O, at that point, had been the subject of an aggressive—and highly successful—marketing campaign for some 20 years. It was in consumers’ minds, not just as a standalone dessert but as a homemaker’s tool. It seemed only right to see what it could contribute to cocktail hour, too.

AM lite rock, multi-camera sitcoms and Jell-O: These things hold a place in our hearts precisely because they are insubstantial.

Likewise, longtime New York sportswriter Red Smith spent a late-career column reminiscing about Jell-O shots he had known in the early 1950s, thanks to Kentucky-born racing writer pal Joe Palmer. The idea stolen from a recipe for jellied madeira in a downhome cookbook, Palmer’s Long Island social circle was soon awash in solidified cocktails like jellied stingers: “Spooned down instead of sipped, its firepower was measured in megatons.” (That same column had Smith presciently reporting on early attempts to powder alcohol among the racing set.)

However, the real origin of jellied booze comes much earlier, and from a much more sacred source: Jerry Thomas’ original How to Mix Drinks. The 1862 bartenders’ bible includes a recipe for Jellied Punch, in which a standard punch recipe is mixed with a portion of powdered isinglass, an early gelling agent, and left to set up in elaborate molds. Even then, the concoction’s purpose was clear; as Thomas wrote in the recipe’s notes, “the strength of the punch is so artfully concealed by its admixture with the gelatine, that many persons, especially of the softer sex, have been tempted to partake so plentifully of it as to render them somewhat unfit for waltzing or quadrilling after supper.”

The Thomas connection notwithstanding, Jell-O shots have, in the past decade or so, fallen victim to an insidiously common refrain in the craft cocktail world: Drinks would be better if they were just taken more seriously. In the early 2000s, spiffed-up Jell-O shots began appearing in bars, served in martini glasses and fruit wedges alongside the Cosmos and lemon drops that marked an era on the verge of reinvention. Not long afterward, the home crafts renaissance spawned a trillion cooking blogs devoted to “upgrading” and “reimagining” the classic formula. To distance themselves from the bad old pre-packaged version, these nouveau shots were called “jelly shots,” “jiggelos,” “jiggle shots” or “party shots.”

Cocktail historian David Wondrich identified this phenomenon in the recent attempt by bartenders to reclaim the camp drinks of the 1970s. His argument: Not everything benefits from serious introspection. “Ultimately, craft versions of these things are like the singer you hear at Starbucks, strumming her guitar and breathily emoting her way through a cover of ‘Afternoon Delight,’” he wrote in a recent article for Esquire. “Her craftiness merely exposes the banality of the song without giving you the simple candy-rush pleasure it provides.” AM lite rock, multi-camera sitcoms and Jell-O: These things hold a place in our hearts precisely because they are insubstantial.

In some ways, attempts to rewrite the gauche tradition of the Jell-O shot are an attempt to gloss over the often uncomfortable fact that alcohol is a drug; all the culture and tradition of drinking is an after-market addition to the first, ultimate purpose of drinking, which is to make us feel good. Alcohol is, quite simply, intoxicating. And while I’m not here to endorse underage binge drinking (kids, if you’re reading this, cover your eyes), there’s real value in drinking terrible, one-note, cheap crap for the first few years of your boozing career—it sets a rock-bottom base from which to discover new, better drinks. Nobody wants to talk to the kid who was drinking 15-year-old scotch in high school; they want to share in the story of their first Jell-O shot. It was weird. It was confusing. Most of all, it was fun.