Adapted from The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan – By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
Place the lemon juice, simple syrup, and water in a small glass measuring cup, and add the gelatin. Allow this to sit for one minute, then microwave the mixture on high for thirty seconds.
Stir thoroughly to make sure that all the gelatin has dissolved, then add the whiskey and (optionally) a drop or two food coloring (stir after each drop until you’ve obtained the proper color).
Stir thoroughly again and pour the mixture into a mold or individual molds.
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We all remember our first, don’t we? Mine was cherry red and had the sting of vodka to it. I’m talking about my first, and only, Jell-O Shot. Sucked down at a party in the midst of the 1980s, I recall thinking, “Wow, this is… really awful.” Now, before you roll your eyes and wonder why a classic cocktail blog is delving into the mysteries of Jell-O, let me put your mind at rest. Let’s remain in the ‘80s for a moment – the 1880’s, that is, or perhaps even a bit earlier. For our cocktailian purposes, let’s just say 1862.
1862 was an interesting year. In America, there was a little scuffle known as the Civil War. In Mexico, General Zaragoza defended the town of Puebla against the French, marking the first Cinco de Mayo. In France, Louis Pasteur successfully completed his first test for pasteurization. Of course, all these events pale in comparison to the fact that Jerry Thomas published the world’s first cocktail book, The Bar-Tender’s Guide, and in it, he offered a recipe for Punch Jelly, a combination of Cognac, Jamaican rum, sugar and lemon juice solidified with gelatin and poured into molds. He followed the recipe with a warning that this jelly was quite potent due to the spirits’ effects being disguised by the gelatin. According to Thomas, more than one fair damsel had been caught unawares by the concoction, the result being that she was “unfit for waltzing or quadrilling after supper.” Thomas also addresses the age-old concern of what to do with one’s dinner left-over’s, stating that if one has some orange, lemon, or calf’s foot jelly on hand from the night’s meal, it can easily be used for that evening’s punch jelly. And so, the Jell-O Shot, for all intents, was born.
But let’s back up a little bit more. What exactly are we talking about when we say “gelatin”? Gelatin is a relatively tasteless protein extracted from the bones, hoofs, and various organs of animals like cattle, pigs, and horses. From the Renaissance up to Victorian times, elaborate gelatin molds were mainstays in grand dinners. However, unlike the easy-to-use sheet (leaf) and powdered products of today, the historical preparation of gelatin was painstaking. After being scraped clean, the hoofs, bones, etc., had to be boiled and simmered with egg whites to remove the excess grease and to clarify the liquid. This was then filtered through jelly bags and dried in sheets or rounds. The gelatin that Thomas calls for is insinglass, a transparent gelatin made from a fish’s air bladder. According to the Dictionary of American Food and Drink, the term “insinglass “ was first noted in English usage in 1545.
In my research, I was surprised to discover that Jell-O, albeit not yet so named, has been around since 1845. In that year, an industrialist named Peter Cooper patented a powdered gelatin. Unfortunately for Cooper, the pre-packed gelatin didn’t grab the public’s fancy; in 1885, the patent was sold to Pearle and May Wait, who added flavorings and dubbed the product “Jell-O”. They in turn sold the business to a man named Frank Woodward for a paltry $450. Woodward’s investment paid off in the early 1900’s that Jell-O really caught on, thanks to an inspired, mass distribution of free Jell-O cookbooks; by the 1930’s, the fashion for “congealed salads” gave Jell-O an added boost and, today, the Jell-O mold is a fixture on almost every holiday table. Elsewhere, Charles B. Knox also developed his own kitchen gelatin after watching his wife struggle to make calves’ foot jelly.
(As a side note, “ballistic gelatin” is used as a substitute for muscle tissue when testing firearms, and the term “Knoxing” refers to the practice whereby synchronized swimmers apply Knox (or another brand) gelatin to their hair to keep it in place in the pool — gelatin does not dissolve in cold water).
Recently, it seems that spirits-spiked jelly shots – we’ll use their generic name — have been appearing everywhere. From the Cosmo to the Margarita, no drink seems immune. If you aren’t sure that the jelly shot is of the moment, consider that no less than Saveur.com just featured three spirits-based jelly shot recipes for Thanksgiving. (The recipes came courtesy of Jelly Shot Test Kitchen, a site that has been jiggling away since 2009 in their laudable quest to solidify classic cocktails into slurp-size morsels.) And, of course, our recipe above comes from the inimitable Gary Regan, whose book The Joy of Mixology (2003) appeared long before the proper jelly shot was even a glimmer in the modern mixologist’s eye. Regan champions the use of classic cocktail recipes for his jelly shots, noting that, with experimentation, you can make anything from a Manhattan to a Mint Julep jelly shot. So, with our little package of Knox gelatin clasped tightly in hand, we trotted into the kitchen to make Regan’s Whiskey Sour Jelly Shot recipe.
Regan has given a good deal of thought to these recipes, making it quite clear that achieving a balance of flavors in a gelatinous cocktail can be just as challenging as in a liquid one. It is essential to get the proportion of gelatin to spirits and juices just right; likewise, the measurement of sugar must often be adjusted. Perhaps his most interesting observation is that water is a necessary component because it substitutes for the ice used to dilute a shaken or stirred cocktail. “Water” can essentially mean any combination of liquids other than the spirit – simple syrup, various juices, and actual water. Just stick with Regan’s basic proportions – a recipe between seven and nine ounces of liquid (with one-third of the volume being “water”) per standard .25 ounce packet of gelatin.
Every drink will require its own tweaking based mostly on one’s personal taste preferences. For instance, to my palate, the original recipe for the Whiskey Sour Jelly Shots produced a somewhat too-tart/too-strong shot, so I played with the sugar/Whiskey proportions to suit (upping the 1 oz of Simple Syrup to 2 oz and reducing the 4 oz of Whiskey called for to 3 oz). Regan also mentions food coloring (something Jelly Shot Test Kitchen uses beautifully along with some original garnishes) as many cocktail-based jelly shots either tend to be dull or even unappealing in color. He advises to add a single drop of coloring at a time, stirring after each addition, so that the tone is subtle not dense.
A few other things to consider. The jelly shots can be ready in as little as an hour or two, but the flavors will meld better and soften if you leave them overnight. Also, unlike the typical Jell-O dessert, jelly shots can start to soften if held at room temperature for to long. Be prepared to serve and eat within half an hour. Likewise, silicone molds can be difficult in terms of extraction. Our first try at these shots left us pressing and prodding the mold to get at the jellies. The second time we used a glass container which we sprayed with Pam, allowing us to easily slide the jellies out and cut in circles. In retrospect, we would probably cut the jellies in the mold next time (as this would provide a more stable form) because our method produced something of an hourglass-like, Mad Hatter aesthetic; we didn’t intend this – but, hey, we like it.
When all is said and done, a jelly shot is still gelatin with liquor in it. It’s not meant for sipping by a cozy fire or toasting to the holidays. It is meant to be what it was always meant to be – slippery, slurping fun. I like to think of the jelly shot as the all-grown up version of the Jell-O Shot and as a creative make-ahead cocktail alternative. If you’re entertaining the masses this holiday season, classic cocktail jelly shots may be just the thing to get you out from behind the bar while still showcasing your talents.
Besides, how often can you have your cocktail and eat it too?