Michelle Matsushita was perhaps not the obvious pick when The Tug Inn needed a Jell-O shot specialist. Matsushita, an occasional customer, was working in medical billing when the West Seattle bar four years ago decided to add Jell-O shots to its menu.
"I'd never made Jell-O shots," she says. "I'd only tasted them one time. But they said 'Can you make Jell-O shots?' I said, 'OK, I'll give it a shot. I just learned from scratch."
Matsushita now makes "round about 300 shots" twice a week, altering the flavors according to her mood and the season. The shots have been recognized in a neighborhood contest as West Seattle's second best drink. "Everyone was doing cocktails and we were doing Jell-O shots," Matsushita recalls.
The Jell-O shot concept predates the Jell-O brand by at least a few decades. Antonin Careme, chef to Napoleon and George IV, made an "Orange-flower and Pink Champagne jelly" that the author of Jelly Shot Test Kitchen identifies as the party drink's forerunner. In 1862, legendary bartender Jerry Thomas included a punch jelly recipe in his bar guide.
Thomas' recipe called for lemons, sugar, gelatin, Cognac and rum. Matsushita uses Jell-O powder, water and vodka. She's found flavored vodkas are especially handy at holiday time. Last Christmas, she made trays of green and red shots from candy cane vodka. For a festive touch, Matsushita suggests whipped cream.
"I go half and half," Matsushita says of her vodka to water ratio. "If you add too much vodka, it doesn't freeze."
The watering-down process produces shots which are about 20 percent alcohol. Scott Heimendinger of Modernist Cuisine, who formerly wrote the Seattle Food Geek column for Voracious, believes he can best that figure. Using a highly scientific method, Heimendinger's produces shots that are 40 percent alcohol.
How strong are the frankenshots? Voracious intends to find out. This Wednesday, Aug. 22, Jell-O shot connoisseur The Surly Gourmand will sample Heimendinger's handiwork at The Tug Inn, previous winner of the Weekly's Best Neighborhood Bar title.
Surly will test his mettle by reading aloud from the works of Thomas Wolfe, a noted alcoholic who surely would have cheered the rise of Jell-O shots. "Why, when it was possible to buy a God in a bottle, and drink him off, and become a God oneself, were men not forever drunken?" Wolfe's alter ego Eugene Gant asks in Look Homeward, Angel.
If the shots are as powerful as Heimendinger promises, The Surly Gourmand's experience might answer Gant's question. "Many persons have been tempted to partake so plentifully of (punch jelly) as to render them somewhat unfit for for waltzing or quadrilling after supper," Jerry Thomas warned his readers.
So there may be precious little quadrilling, but should you like to witness the liquor-fueled, literate fun, Surly starts drinking at 7 p.m. See you there.