Food & Drinks

Welcome Back, Jell-O Shot

At Washington, D.C.’s Silver Lyan, among menu items that include elaborate Martini service, Champagne splits and the famous Nuked Manhattan, the Jello Fruit Basket is an eye-catcher. What appears to be an array of glossy citrus wedges nestled in pine needles is actually gelatinized cocktails set into citrus peels, each manicured with a hot knife for perfectly sharp edges. A baijiu-spiked Melon Ball topped with ibérico salt riffs on prosciutto-wrapped melon; a solidified, glistening Lychee Martini sprinkled with sakura salt resembles a small grapefruit section—biting into the peel is part of the effect. 

While most associate Jell-O shots with college parties, Silver Lyan, located in a former bank vault in the basement of D.C.’s upscale Riggs hotel, takes a decidedly high-end approach. Flanked with shots of Champagne and costing $80 per basket, the playful serve is intended to appeal to groups. After all, no one consumes Jell-O shots in solitude.

“Guests are looking for fun whenever they go out now—it’s so needed after the last two years,” explains Ryan Chetiyawardana, who is behind the bar and the trompe l’oeil shots. His reimagined versions of the shot are “real, rather than synthetic,” made with premium spirits, fresh juices and alternative gelling agents that aren’t pre-sweetened or -flavored. With retro slushies and so-called disco drinks seeing a resurgence at a variety of bars, Jell-O shots make sense in the pantheon of the playful, he adds. 

Chetiyawardana’s not the only one who feels that way. Bartenders across the country are bringing a new perspective to the Jell-O shot, from Champagne-inspired jelly squares and colorful cups embedded with tapioca boba to a gelatinized Negroni presented in an elegant coupe.

“Jell-O Shots are nothing new,” assures food historian Ken Albala in his forthcoming book, The Great Gelatin Revival (University of Illinois Press, due out in January 2023). Aspics, savory gelatins often set with meat- or fish-based stock or broth, were invented by medieval cooks, and downright “architectural” versions became “the height of fashion” in Victorian times, only reaching ordinary households in the 20th century through the advent of packets of powdered gelatin, including the pre-sweetened, flavored, brightly colored Jell-O brand.

Further, before the advent of Jell-O, gelatin preparations “almost always contained wine or another spirit,” explains Albala. In that way, the Jell-O shot—considered a subversive twist when the treat became an attractive vehicle for alcohol among those who grew up with it in the ’70s and ’80s—is a bit of a return to form.

Students of cocktail history also may recall the “gelée” drinks of the early aughts, when chefs like Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz brought molecular mixology into the mainstream. At the time, these solidified cocktails were seen as a way to push boundaries of culinary creativity.

Today’s Jell-O shot has a completely different meaning: It signals nostalgia, escapism and a middle finger extended toward pandemic-driven rules and stuffy, speakeasy-style restrictions.

“The popularity of Jell-O shots has a direct correlation with the weight of everything happening in the world right now,” says Jack Schramm, co-proprietor of Solid Wiggles, which makes elaborate boozy Jell-O shots and large-format gelatin cakes. Schramm declined to share exact sales numbers for the company, founded during the pandemic, but said he has seen “substantial” growth, in part due to techniques that allow faster production of the confections. 

While some still employ the boxed gelatin found on grocery store shelves, many bartenders don’t use the Jell-O brand to make their drinks, preferring unflavored gelatin packets, sheets (often found in pastry kitchens) or vegan gelling agents like agar-agar. As with any other drink format, bars have found a way to adapt the shots to reflect the aesthetic of their venue, or their personal point of view.

For example, at Portland, Oregon, restaurant Oma’s Hideaway, which focuses on food and drinks inspired by Southeast Asia and China, the house Jell-O shot features tropical flavors and passion fruit–flavored “poppin’ boba,” housed in a compostable, plant-based ramekin and served with a spoon. 

“It’s our No. 1 selling drink,” says co-owner Mariah Pisha-Duffly, who estimates that more than 400 sell each week. The shots started as a takeout offering during COVID-related closures. “It’s playful and nostalgic… This immediately tells you we don’t take ourselves too seriously and want you to have a good time.” (Oma’s also offers a rum-spiked pudding shot, garnished with Pocky.)

Meanwhile, at White Limozeen, the Dolly Parton–themed bar atop Nashville’s Graduate Hotel, beverage director Demi Natoli adapted Jell-O shots to fit with the Champagne-heavy drink menu, intended to appeal to bachelorette parties and other celebratory groups. Her version mixes Champagne and rosé wine with gelatin, plus seasonal flavors (this summer, strawberry and lemongrass). The mix is solidified in mini brownie molds, then dusted with sugar and a Pop Rocks–like carbonated crystal; ordered from a pastry purveyor, the garnish mimics the effervescence of Champagne bubbles. 

She was originally inspired by Pat Halloran of Nashville’s Henrietta Red, who Natoli calls “the James Beard of Jell-O shots.” While Halloran makes 20 gelatinized classic cocktails per night—Fish House Punch, the Naked and Famous and Jack Rose versions among them—Natoli says she can sell 200 jiggly Champagne squares, presented in “little baby cupcake tins,” in an evening. Some months yield total sales of 2,000 to 3,000 squares.

“It’s celebratory,” Natoli says of the appeal. “During COVID, it was cautious; you couldn’t share drinks or crowd around the bar. Now you can do those fun things with your friends.”

Given these conditions and the trendiness of the format, it was only a matter of time before the beloved Negroni found itself in Jell-O form. At Marian’s, a restaurant in New York City’s West Village, a gelatinous version of the aperitivo icon is served in an elegant mini coupe alongside a more traditional liquid version in a mini rocks glass.

“The Negroni in Two Acts has been a house standard since we opened in December of last year,” explains general manager Adam Fitzpatrick, describing the duo as “Instagram-worthy.” Understandably so: Presented on a gold plate that echoes the brass trim on the restaurant’s Tiffany Blue tables, the serve juxtaposes the playful drink with the fine-dining setting.  

No matter the format—upscale menu item to DIY party drink—Jell-O shots are still about fun and camaraderie, above all.

“We need escapism now more than ever,” says Solid Wiggles’ Schramm. “And a playful, boozy, bite of gelatin can be the thing to transport us to a better headspace, even for a moment.” 

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