The Delicate Art of the Jello Shot

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
March 16 2012 12:15 PM

Watch It Wiggle

The delicate art of the jello shot.

A tray of jello shots before refrigeration.
Spring break is nearly here: time to salute the jello shot

Wikimedia Commons

From the dance halls of Negril to the shores of Lake Havasu, the younger set formulates queries about the do’s and don'ts and oh-no-you-didn'ts of spring-break drinking. Naturally, a majority of these concern the official alcoholic beverage of spring break, cheap beer, best enjoyed with an open mind and throat. (For the record, the etiquette columnist in me says that is never discourteous to use one’s shirttail to wipe clean a beer bong when departing a funneling session.) But I am today grappling with the official alcoholic solid of spring break: the jello shot.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Such are they called in the vernacular. I am certain that the people at Kraft Foods—like the citizens of Xerox and Kleenex, of Technicolor and British Cellophane—have passionate feelings about the ways in which the brand name Jell-O is used nonspecifically. I also believe that, if you're crafting a sophisticated jello-shot treatment, you will likely turn to unflavored Knox Original Gelatine in conjunction with fresh fruit juices. Yes, of course, there is a sophisticated way to prepare jello shots; we live a world where television executives eat absinthe gummy bears then greenlight shows about molecular gastronomy. I’m also pretty sure that, when putting together an artisanal-jello-shot party, it is still taboo to harpoon an organic, free-range baby dolphin to make all-natural gelatin powder.

As I say, the jello shot has a long history of being totally classy. According to Michelle Palm’s Jelly Shot Test Kitchen—which offers recipes for cuboid gimlets and grasshoppers—the progenitor of the jello shot was an “Orange-Flower and Pink Champagne Jelly” confected by Antonin Carême, who baked for Rothschilds and Romanovs and Bonapartes. Jerry Thomas, in his seminal 1862 work How to Mix Drinks, dropped a recipe for punch jelly ripe with cognac and dark rum, and it has been ably updated by the food blog Four Pounds Flour.

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Take care to note the timelessness of Thomas’ advice concerning this treat’s stealth potency: “Should be used in moderation; the strength of the punch is so artfully concealed by its admixture with the gelatine, that many persons, particularly 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.” Indeed, 150 years later, spring-break partiers in Cancun might down so many jello shots that they forget how to waltz altogether.

Now the great thing about jello shots is their variety. A rainbow of fruit flavors arcs before you. You can let your jello shots set in Dixie cups, ice-cube trays, shot glasses, espresso cups, plastic fast-food pump-ketchup cuplets, festive Mini Jellettes, and even snowcone thingies. It can even be nice to use a loaf pan, especially if it is sufficiently wide to accommodate the head of an adult. In this realm, sound advice abounds from the many fine minds in the R&D department, so I’ll limit myself to delivering quick notes on the three most important jello-shot flavors, by which I mean colors.

ORANGE
The “Basic Tiddly Jell-O” involves mixing a colorless, tasteless spirit with water and gelatin powder. Call me a wuss, but I don't recommend using Everclear or other such 190-proof solvents. Steer clear; use vodka.

The most noteworthy moment in the history of orange jello shots comes courtesy of the satirist Tom Lehrer who, working at the NSA in the mid-1950s, exploited a technicality with aplomb:

We wanted to have a Christmas office party, but the rules forbade all alcoholic "beverages," so a friend of mine and I decided to confront this challenge. … We settled on vodka in orange Jell-O—same recipe as on the box, only with vodka instead of the cold water. I have heard that daiquiris are good in lime Jell-O. We filled little paper cups with the final product, took them into the base past the guards, and nobody said anything. It was a very nice party.

Please join me in honoring Mr. Lehrer’s service with a wobbly salute.

GREEN
Daiquiris are good, yes, and Jell-O has an official margarita flavor, but let’s say you’re in a different mood, meaning in the mood for gin as usual. Try a gin-and-tonic jello shot. Store-brand tonic will do the trick, but for the gin I recommend something distinctly floral, like Dorothy Parker American gin, which I started buying for existential reasons related to my self-conception as its target demographic.

Be aware that you don’t necessarily have to wait for your gin-and-tonic jello shots to set fully before glug-a-glutting on them. But should a food fight break out, these unset cubes are scattershot at distance and will only prove useful during hand-to-hand combat.

YELLOW
It is perhaps blasphemous to omit red from this modest tally, but red stands for danger. There is the risk of confusing the cherry with the raspberry, for instance, and the fact that red Jell-O is responsible for some of the most psychologically disturbing stains. (In that regard, it is second only to Berry Blue.)

Accelerate at yellow. Not only is a lemon drop tangy and refreshing, but under the nightclub black lights of Acapulco it will shine like a raver’s glowstick in an “effortless-intake” jello-shot injector. Wiggle it, but just a little bit.