Is the Jell-O shot just a phase?
If you’ve ever had one (or a hundred), it probably entered your consciousness in high school or college — served up in row after row of little plastic cups, each one shining neon red and green. Odds are that they were made with bargain-barrel vodka, mixed with standard-issue boxes of artificially flavored strawberry, orange and lime jello.
Sometimes, this basic jiggly elixir is all you want and need. But at some point in college, I realized that making gourmet Jell-O shots could change my house-party game for good. The vision arrived after another night out at a frat house, or maybe it was a party at an apartment complex. Either way, my roommates and I returned home, sat down for a (completely gratuitous) whiskey nightcap, and began to talk shit.
I don’t recall the vagaries of that drunken rant session, but there was a central thesis: We’re getting too old for terrible tasting shots and random parties slammed wall-to-wall with underclassmen. We could do it better, on our own terms, in our own house. We could serve fresh cocktails, play zero LMFAO songs and wow our friends with new riffs on the things they loved.
That included, naturally, Jell-O shots. And so, we experimented, turning classic drinks into wobbly cubes of one-bite booze: Margarita Jell-O with fresh lime juice and quality triple sec; cranberry-vodka Jell-O garnished with lime zest and baby mint leaves; watermelon juice and soju, dressed with a squeeze of lemon before slurping. They became a signature intro to our weekend cocktail parties, and it proved a point about the unique euphoria of feeding friends and acquaintances something beautiful and memorable.
I haven’t thrown a big, drunken house party in literal years now. I miss seeing the mosh pit of chatter ballooning in my living room and watching faces light up as they slurp on something unexpectedly delicious. Nothing captures that moment quite like serving gourmet Jell-O shots, and it makes me wonder why these boozy concoctions aren’t a more regular presence in our lives. Some people really need a crisp, cold beer after the workday, but I could imagine replacing that with a few chilled Jell-O shots, sweet and strong. Fancied-up Jell-O booze is also a perfect intro to any dinner party or brunch gathering — akin to a glass of champagne upon arrival, but far more playful.
I’m hardly the first to recontextualize the joys of Jell-O shots into something more flavorful and “adult”: In the last decade, bars around the country have elevated the form by recreating classic and cutting-edge cocktails with gelatin, making one-bite Old Fashioneds and multi-layered concoctions that look like fine dining desserts. Luckily for us, it’s not hard to do at home, requiring just a basic formula for the ratio of liquid to gelatin.
There’s nothing wrong with getting creative with boxes of sugary instant Jell-O mixes, but I think the real joy of experimentation comes with the use of plain gelatin, either in powdered or sheet form. For Jell-O shots that will be served out of a cup, I use one packet of Knox powdered gelatin, each containing one-quarter ounces, for every two-cup batch of cocktail. Two cups is the size of a standard measuring cup, and you can expect about a dozen small jello shots from this batch.
For that two-cup batch, I use a ratio of roughly 1.5 cups of mixer for every 1/2 cup of liquor — a strong but not overpowering 3:1 ratio, though your mileage may vary. Gelatin needs contact with a hot water-based liquid to activate, but you don’t want to boil liquor, lest you lose all the alcohol to evaporation. So the best option here is to measure everything out, then use only the non-alcoholic liquid as the “hot starter” to bloom the gelatin. For example:
- 1.25 cup cranberry juice and juice of one lime
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup of vodka
- 5 ounces of triple sec
Pour 1/4 cup of juice mixture into a bowl. Put the rest into a small pot to heat to a boil, along with the sugar. Pour the gelatin packet into the 1/4 cup of juice, and stir, letting sit for one minute. When the hot mix is bubbling, gently pour it into the gelatin mix while stirring. Add your alcohol and stir again. Let stand for five minutes, then pour into individual cups.
This method is basically replicable with any cocktail that’s built with a larger ratio of water-based mixer to alcohol, like gin and tonics or Moscow Mules. What it won’t work with is any cocktail that’s booze-forward, like Negronis or Old Fashioneds, although there’s definitely a way to do that, too. Experimentation is key, especially if you want a Jell-O shot that you can cut into a pretty cube and serve like an hors d’oeuvre (just use more gelatin). You can make layered Jell-O shots, or add fresh ingredients like herbs, or decorate the tops with gold leaf and edible flowers.
It’s a long cry from the cheap Jell-O shots that I first slurped down my freshman year of college. But that was a particular vibe for a particular time. Turns out, Jell-O shots are a lot more versatile than we give them credit for — and I look forward to sharing them no matter how old I get.