What’s the most fun way to consume alcohol? By doing body shots off a High Society cover girl? With a maniacal clown in a decrepit New England cemetery? By emptying a bottle of Champagne into a dolphin’s blowhole, then dancing around in the fountain when the dolphin sprays it out?
Those alcohol-consumption strategies might be mildly entertaining, but nothing compares to the awesome fun of Jell-O shots! If you somehow converted the amount of fun in a typical Jell-O shot into hugs, you would be able to hug every lonely latchkey child on earth 10 times!
Once considered the developmentally disabled cousin in the family of cocktails, the Jell-O shot has finally come of age here in Seattle. Jell-O shots have historically been found in dive bars and sorority-girl hangouts. These two scenes might seem diametric opposites, but they are in fact both so extreme that they connect in back, the way retrograde right-wing fascist and ultra-leftist political theories seem to bizarrely coincide. How did Jell-O bring them together? Elementary, really: One customer base wanted a cheap buzz, the other was looking for something that didn’t taste like booze.
The fact is, Jell-O shots appeal to a variety of drinkers, cutting a wide swath across various demographics. And they’re becoming more popular all the time. According to data furnished by Anne Radford—spokesperson for the Washington State Liquor Control Board and a woman with a name that sounds so classically Pilgrim that she had no choice but to go into liquor control—vodka is the only spirit whose market share has risen, no doubt due to the extra vodka bars have needed to purchase to make Jell-O shots.
Puzzlingly, the WSLCB doesn’t seem to be too worried about Jell-O shots suddenly taking Seattle by storm. Says Radford, “Our Seattle enforcement officers do see the occasional sale of Jell-O shots at liquor-licensed businesses. They usually see them around holidays or special events. Our officers treat them the same as normal shots.” Asked if, in the WSLCB’s opinion, Jell-O shots were the most fun way to consume liquor, Radford, with a charmingly harried sigh, replies, “We’re in the business of making sure alcohol is consumed responsibly.”
But everyone knows responsibility is no fun!
Dive bars were the first to embrace Jell-O’s quivering renaissance, which feels like being embraced by an obese aunt and smells like the clothes of a guy who works in a chewing-gum factory. Mac’s Triangle Pub in White Center (9454 Delridge Way S.W.) was an early adopter—they began offering Jell-O shots in 2005. The popular Rat City hangout offers five flavors, each paired with a different liquor. Cherry is mixed with vodka, which tastes unfortunately like a jiggly shot of solidified Robitussin. Raspberry gets spiked with rum. Tequila, of course, goes with lime. Gin, as per Snoop Dogg’s suggestion, pairs nicely with orange. And “Seahawks Berry” is a combination of the dubiously named “berry blue” Jell-O and raspberry vodka. When the Seahawks score a touchdown, the price of the Seahawks Berry shot drops to a mere 12 cents from the normal price of $1.
Geoffrey “Mac” McElroy, proprietor of Mac’s, explains his rationale for selling alcoholic Jell-O: “It’s fun. If you have a wad of dough, you can buy the whole house a round.” Apparently, the Jell-O-shot trade was too fun; “pretenders,” as McElroy calls them, quickly swooped in to grab a piece of the action.
By “pretenders,” he means the Tug Inn (2216 S.W. Orchard St.), his closest geographic competitor. The Tug is West Seattle’s most nefarious dive bar, with a reputation shady enough to grow coffee beneath it. In fact, the bar’s own website (tuginn.com) feels the need to post a grim disclaimer: “The Tug has been know [sic] as a dive bar that is full of violent and crazy drunks. This reputation is completely false.” It’s true: Tales of the Tug’s violent and crazy clientele are exaggerated by as much as 50 percent, because the clientele is in fact merely crazy.
Still, the Tug makes a mean Jell-O shot. Like Mac’s, the Tug’s shots are only $1, come in pretty much every Jell-O flavor on Earth, and are so strong they must be stored in the freezer because there’s too much alcohol for the gelatin to set properly otherwise. In November 2008, the Tug obtained a hard-liquor license. Sales immediately spiked, but once people got used to the idea of the Tug selling the hard stuff, interest dropped off. Management was looking for a new revenue stream. Intrepid bartender Arthur Rodenhauser was part of the brainstorming session that brought Jell-O shots to the Tug. “We’d close by 1 a.m. on Friday,” he says. “We wanted to get a younger crowd. Nothing screams ‘younger crowd’ like Jell-O shots!”
At first, it seemed that maybe Jell-O would be another dud for the Tug. “We tried different liquors, but tequila and rum were sending people down the wrong path,” says Rodenhauser. “We thought vodka was safer.” Then revenue took off. “It’s been a year since we started selling them, but we’ve at least doubled sales.”
As for Mac’s Triangle, Rodenhauser has this to say about his neighborhood rivals: “I was glad that the Triangle started selling Jell-O shots because it kept the riffraff from coming here.”
It’s not only garrulous barrooms like the Tug that are jumping on the Jell-O-shot wagon—Nijo Sushi (83 Spring St.), just north of Pioneer Square, sells them. Nijo is one of those glossy, modern sushi joints with a huge sake menu, and which sells traditional fare like nigiri sushi and miso soup yet still feels the need to shill stuff like tuna carpaccio and crème brûlée. Nijo’s Jell-O shots are generally sold in one flavor, usually black cherry, and are spiked with sake. This seems like a good idea until you actually consume them, since the sake gives the shots a soapy taste in the finish. Plus, they’re exorbitantly priced at $3.
Sophisticated Jell-O shots can also be found at The Grizzled Wizard (2317 N. 45th St.) in Wallingford. Proprietor Joe Couden honed his culinary chops around town in marquee establishments like Restaurant Zoë, then left to pursue his dream of running the single most warlock-centric bar in Seattle. Since it opened on St. Patrick’s Day 2010, The Grizzled Wizard has sold Jell-O shots every bit as magical as its name: “margarita” shots consist of lime Jell-O mixed with tequila and triple sec, while “chocolate cherry” shots are made from cherry Jell-O, chocolate liqueur, and Stoli Vanil. Truly spellbinding stuff, though creepy Harry Potter fanatics should take note of two things: 1) The Grizzled Wizard’s magical Jelly Slug shots are only available on weekends, and 2) all Harry Potter fans are wicked idolaters who will burn in Hell.
Similarly tasteful Jell-O shots are sold at bizarre Capitol Hill stalwart Unicorn (1118 E. Pike St.). With its unsettling striped walls and decrepit taxidermy everywhere, Unicorn looks like what a circus probably looks like to a redneck on acid. This attention to detail extends from Unicorn’s decor to their exquisite Jell-O shots, the best we’ve tasted. This quality comes with a price tag, however: the princely sum of $3 each. That said, they sure are motherfucking tasty. Sweet-tea/vodka Jell-O shots are made from lemon Jell-O and Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka, and are very refreshing.
Sweet tea isn’t the only avant-garde shot that Unicorn sells. According to Unicorn bartender Amanda, exotic flavors are its niche. “This is so dorky, but people call them ‘extreme Jell-O shots,’ ” she says. While they aren’t made from Mountain Dew, Unicorn’s shots are in fact extreme, if an alcoholic dessert item can qualify as “extreme.” Orange/mango shots, made from orange Jell-O and mango vodka, are very popular, as are raspberry/piña colada shots made from piña colada and raspberry gelatins and raspberry vodka.
Amanda says piña colada Jell-O must always be mixed with another flavor, lest customers get turned off by its pearlescent color. “It would be weird to do just piña colada Jell-O shots, because it’s white,” Amanda says. “It might remind people of something gross.”
Though local Jell-O-shot acceptance is at an all-time high, there still exists plenty of pushback. A source within the local service industry, who agreed to relate this story only upon condition of anonymity, points to a recent Microsoft party at which Jell-O shots were served. “Jerry McJelloHater,” as we’ll call him, helped plan this party, which took place at the David Barton Gym inside Bellevue’s Bravern Building.
Microsoft really wanted Jell-O shots. The party planners balked at this request, mostly because they anticipated that the party would devolve into a drunken disaster. “People don’t really touch Jell-O shots until they’re far gone enough not to even need Jell-O shots,” McJelloHater opines. Unfortunately, bad taste prevailed, the software behemoth got its way, and a 20-foot-long table was set up inside the gym, completely covered with multicolored Jell-O shots set up to resemble the four-paned Windows logo.
Predictably enough, the cloistered nerds who populate Microsoft’s ranks got shitfaced. They ransacked the Jell-O shots, then became surly. “One-hundred-twenty-pound Indian dudes started picking fights with the gym rats at the David Barton Gym,” says McJelloHater. “It turned into an absolute clusterfuck.”
McJelloHater’s use of “absolute” obviously offers more wiggle room than the word traditionally carries, because fighting wasn’t the worst offense perpetrated that night. Later, McJelloHater got a call from the Bravern Building security. Apparently the inebriated employees had been staggering out of the gym and puking—all over the Bravern lobby. “The floor was covered in Jell-O from all the puking,” says McJelloHater. “It really was a Technicolor yawn.”
As they have for many, Jell-O shots have left a terrible taste in McJelloHater’s mouth, and he didn’t even eat any. “The first question we [now] ask when we get hired to do an event is ‘We don’t do Jell-O shots.'” That’s not really a question, but you get the gist of McJelloHater’s disdain.
Other local alcoholerati feel intense ire for Jell-O shots. Jamie Boudreau was named Seattle Magazine‘s Bartender of the Year in 2007, and articles about him have appeared in so many magazines that a list of them would look like one of those pages of stickers you used to get from Publishers Clearing House. After successfully scouring from Tini Bigs’ drink menu the appletinis, chocotinis, and all other ‘tinis that don’t start with “mar,” Boudreau resigned his post and took to the lecture circuit. A self-proclaimed “molecular mixologist” who hosts his own Internet show called Raising the Bar (small screennetwork.com/show/raising_the_bar), Boudreau’s knowledge of and appreciation for cocktails is encyclopedic: He loves classics like the Old Fashioned as much as newfangled ones, like his own “Rosewater Rickey.” (Spritz some cherries with a mixture of bitters and 151-proof rum and ignite. When the flames die, add ice, gin, and rosewater. Enjoy.) Yet he’s got a visceral hatred for Jell-O shots that rivals the animosity felt by torch-carrying villagers for Frankenstein.
“Jell-O shots and their ilk are a direct result of the U.S.’s infantile stance toward alcohol,” says Boudreau. “To consume Jell-O shots is to tell the world that you have no care for what enters your body, have no palate to speak of, and is the culinary equivalent to having Ruby Tuesday’s Bella Turkey Burger for Thanksgiving dinner.”
But not all of Seattle’s food-and-beverage-industry professionals are down on Jell-O. Gastropub baroness Linda Derschang is cautiously accepting of this trend. “If my customers were clamoring for them, I would perhaps sell Jell-O shots,” Derschang carefully admits. “I have had a Jell-O shot twice. When I was in my 20s, the big shots were kamikazes. I still can’t stand the smell of Rose’s Lime Juice.”
Other aristocrats of booze are even more welcoming of the Jell-O tidal wave. Connor O’Brien is a bartender at the newly refurbished Vito’s (927 Ninth Ave.) on First Hill. Once an elite haunt where the city’s power brokers met to hammer out deals over martinis, veal, and cigarettes, by the late 1990s Vito’s polished elegance had tarnished to the point where it briefly closed. However, Hideout owner Greg Lundgren recently purchased Vito’s and has restored it to its former glory. It reopened this year, newly staffed by a cadre of expert bartenders, including O’Brien. Regarding Jell-O shots, O’Brien says, “I don’t partake of them, except when I do. Drink when the situation calls for it.”
Bar manager Justin Gerardy agrees: “I suppose we should consider gelatin an ingredient like any other. Maybe we could snobbify it.” Snobbifying Jell-O seems utterly plausible, given a culinary climate which has embraced mini-cheeseburgers, bacon, and corn dogs with irony and a postmodern appreciation for carnival food. “They have a bad reputation,” says Gerardy, “but there’s probably something to be said for reintroducing Jell-O to refined palates. Now you’ve got me thinking. Maybe a Fernet Jell-O shot!”
O’Brien seems to be on board with this, displaying a very complete knowledge of cocktail culture. “With all of the classic bar revivals, everything old is new again. Jell-O shots date to the 1800s.”
1862, to be exact. The first nascent Jell-O-shot recipe was printed in How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant’s Companion, a bartender’s guide from the golden age of putting “or” into titles. It calls for “a good bowl of Punch a la Ford” to be mixed with “isinglass,” an archaic kind of gelatin made from dried fish bladders. Punch a la Ford is basically lemonade mixed with brandy and rum. The result is roughly 10 percent alcohol by volume, so when further diluted with dissolved isinglass, those old-timey Jell-O shots probably weren’t very strong.
That said, How to Mix Drinks cautions readers not to eat too much of this “Punch Jelly”: “This preparation is a very agreeable refreshment on a cold night, but should be used in moderation . . . 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.”
Times never change: Microsoft’s programmers probably weren’t doing any quadrilling after their Jell-O shots, either.
But what exactly the fuck is Jell-O? Contrary to popular belief, Jell-O is not made from the Kool-Aid Man’s congealed blood. On a molecular level, gelatin is basically collagen, the same thing that the Real Housewives of Whereverthefuck get injected into their mouths to get a killer set of dick-sucking lips.
Collagen is composed of chains of amino acids called polypeptides. In unmelted gelatin, the polypeptides coil together in orderly triple helices. When dissolved in hot water, however, the polypeptides uncoil and drift about. As the water cools, the chains try to twist themselves back into helix formations, but get tangled, like a box full of telephone cords, trapping the molecules of water—and of alcohol, sugar, and fruit flavoring—into a polypeptide framework. The resulting substance, a liquid suspended in a solid, is called a gel.
The modern Jell-O shot was invented by musical satirist Tom Lehrer. Yes, the guy who wrote that song that crams in all the elements of the periodic table is responsible for reintroducing Jell-O shots to the public. According to the liner notes of Lehrer’s greatest-hits album, The Remains of Tom Lehrer, Jell-O shots were created as a clever way to evade regulations against liquor on military bases.
In 1955, Lehrer was serving in the Army. They wanted to have a Christmas party, but “alcoholic beverages” were expressly forbidden. So they created an alcoholic food by mixing vodka and orange Jell-O. “The only thing I did contribute to the war effort was vodka Jell-O.” And your country thanks you, Tom Lehrer. A Congressional Medal of Honor would be appropriate.
How should the discriminating Jellologist eat a Jell-O shot? Opinions differ. At Unicorn, they’re conveniently served with a cocktail straw embedded in the side of the cup for easy dislodging. McElroy, of Mac’s Triangle, disagrees with this. “If you’re a prude, you use a utensil,” he says. “Otherwise you imagine it’s something better than Jell-O and dive in.” But the use of a straw to release a Jell-O shot is clearly more elegant than erotically lashing one’s tongue about in order to loosen it.
There’s something whimsical and naughty about a Jell-O shot. They’re like one of those sexy latex costumes you see chicks wearing on Halloween, but not as stupid.
“Jell-O shots are like a one-night stand,” says Rodenhauser, of the Tug. “They seem great at the time, but you regret it the next morning.”
Rodenhauser’s quote, while clever, is completely off base. It would be more accurate to describe Jell-O shots as a marriage, because they’re a union of Jell-O and shitloads of alcohol, and a drinker’s relationship with Jell-O shots lasts not for a mere night, but for a lifetime! God put Jell-O shots together, and what God has joined together, let no man or woman put asunder. Not even Rodenhauser.
Eating 20 of them might be a bad idea; slurping down four or five, however, chased with a pitcher of discount beer, just might be the perfect thing to celebrate the birth of your first child. Hopefully your spouse is able to make it.
Jell-O shots are so good, it’s now a federal law that anyone who openly disparages them can be punched in the face with extreme prejudice. Or if that isn’t federal law, it should be. Tom Lehrer risked life and limb to invent Jell-O shots so that all of us living today could enjoy them. Thank you, Tom Lehrer. Thank you for giving us the freedom to mix Jell-O with alcohol. Without our brave men and women in the armed forces, we Americans would be without Jell-O shots. And that’s just wrong.
Jell-O shots are clearly the wave of the future—a sloppy, sticky, quivering, alcoholic tsunami coming to obliterate all opposition. Jell-O shots appeal to all strata of society. They were invented in America. They’re practically a national pastime. And only Communists and other dastardly subversives would refuse an American-made product.
The Surly Gourmand writes every week on Seattle Weekly‘s food blog, Voracious (seattleweekly.com/voracious).