On September 28, the acclaimed Lower East Side wine bar Wildair hosted a popup for Booker and Dax, Dave Arnold’s beloved avant-garde cocktail den, which shuttered four years ago. While chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske Valtierra handled the food, Arnold and bartender Jack Schramm prepared cocktails. Among those was the signature Banana Justino, rum blended with banana then clarified using a centrifuge for a hard-to-replicate real fruit flavor. Despite such a boundary-pushing evening of food and drink, the unexpected star of the night was a tray of translucent jello shots, made of gin, clarified lime and cucumber juice in which edible flower petals seemed magically suspended.
“How to create a piece of art that is still balanced flavorwise?” asks Schramm, one of the two brains behind this experimental project along with his longtime friend, pastry chef Jena Derman. The two had worked together at Momofuku Milk Bar in 2012 and 2013. In recent months, with a surfeit of free time due to the pandemic, Derman and Schramm finally had the time to cement their vision for Solid Wiggles, a company dedicated to a highbrow take on the jello shot, and the answer to Schramm’s question. “This is basically a culmination of all our knowledge over many years—me on the bar side, Jen on the pastry side—coming together to create one beautiful thing,” says Schramm.
Derman, who currently runs her own culinary consulting studio called Jena Derman, Inc., has been making jello cakes for several years, ever since designing one on a whim for her best friend’s 35th birthday party. Inspired by the gelatin cakes of Asia, which have become a DIY internet sensation, Derman’s creations are sometimes likened to edible works of art, with colorful leaves, bulbs and corollas floating within the transparent bricks. For her cakes, Derman starts by making a clear jello “canvas”—typically using coconut water mixed with sheet gelatin—before creating cavities into which she injects fruit purées and milk jelly to produce flavorful 3D decorations.
Partnering with Schramm, an expert in centrifugal clarification from his time working alongside science-minded Arnold at Booker and Dax and Existing Conditions, allowed the duo to add both alcohol and clarified juices to the equation, expanding the flavor possibilities of the base.
“With the Spinzall [a culinary centrifuge created by Arnold] we can literally add orange juice or cucumber juice that is clarified and looks clear with gin,” explains Derman of the potential the technique has unlocked. What was once a clear, nearly flavorless base could now contribute more to the equation than just structural integrity.
Their initial collaboration served at Wildair, called Coming Up Roses, was such a hit that Derman and Schramm launched their company and online retail space in mid-October. Their first widespread release, a shot in the shape of an enucleated and bloodshot Eye-Ball, was flavored with rum, Campari, clarified orange juice, coconut purée, cherry juice and Angostura bitters, which produced the eyeball’s bloodshot veins. Made in 2-ounce soufflé cups, each shot contained 1 ounce of alcohol. An order of six Eye-Balls cost $40 or, fittingly, $6.66 per shot, and was strictly available for takeout at Wildair and King Tai Bar in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood while supplies lasted.
Derman and Schramm agree that, while you could just pop them whole, they work best when consumed in two or three bites. “We found each part of the shot has different characteristics,” explains Derman. That’s why they ensured each component was delicious on its own. “You might take a little nibble, ‘Oh, I’m tasting the lime here,’ or ‘I’m getting the salt rim.’ Or if you shoot the whole thing, you still have the same flavors appearing in your mouth.”
Despite the labor-intensive nature of the creations, the pair is able to produce 400 shots a day, with the possibility of scaling up in the hopes of one day being able to ship their products to consumers across the country. Schramm has already hinted at a future release, consisting of a rum cask-finished single malt Scotch and spiced cranberry and hibiscus shot that will be available by mid-November. And with Thanksgiving on the horizon, Solid Wiggles is planning larger items that might double as holiday centerpieces, like 6-inch slice-and-serve cakes, both alcoholic and non-, which will inherently offer more room for decoration.
But, these shots and cakes are designed to offer more than just delicious flavors in a novel package—they’re supposed to be fun. “Joy is kind of limited these days,” says Derman, “We’ve been getting a ton of positive feedback for making people happy.”