No one seemed excited at the question. The most enthused response I got was something along the lines of “Oh [hesitation, look of mild confusion] … sure.” But when I handed them the little amber-hued slice, their coolness wavered. Maybe this wasn’t what they were expecting.
OK, so Jell-O shots have a bad reputation. I’m fine with that. If they are expecting something electric blue in a cup, they will be dazzled when I hand them a gelatinous orange slice that’s filled with a little-bit-wobbly slab of bitters and bourbon. Everyone looked a little embarrassed eating them, biting into an orange peel while I eagerly awaited their response. Well, at least no one gagged.
There’s a high degree of novelty to loosening and slurping little orbs of boozy Jell-O from the bottom of a paper pill cup—but maybe that’s because I went to a liberal-arts college. Having never grown tired of the neon-colored booze permutation, I sought it out. But I was also aiming to dismantle the convention that kept those I asked from showing any degree of excitement. If I offered them a cocktail, would they express the same degree of hesitation?
This Thing Shouldn’t Even Be Called a Jell-O Shot
To be fair, there’s no Jell-O at all—just straight up gelatin. I’d heard of the famed totally beautiful, wobbly concoctions that local bartender Annemarie Sagoi had crafted for years at The Charleston in Chicago. So for this story, I sought her out to pick her brain about the science, experimentation, and inspiration behind her creations. And how I could make some of my own.
Sagoi’s approach was a multifaceted one. In the dead of winter, what she aptly described as “a historically bleak time” for those in the service industry, drawing customers out of their caves was no easy task. So she had to cook something original up. The shots were the bait. Her execution, however, was a whole different story.
She used candy molds and interesting presentations—which were thoroughly documented on social media—to draw curious drinkers and patrons to her bar. Plus, she used good ingredients, melding the high-brow (and oft-intimidating) concepts of craft cocktails with the low-brow medium of a historically fratty “drink”—if you could even call it that.
Her gallery of shots eventually numbered over 100, ranging from rectangular slabs of a gelatinous Pimm’s cup to a piña colada presented on a fresh circle of pineapple.
For my own experimentation, I jaunted off into the realm of the familiar—sort of. I don’t personally have any cool candy molds at home, but I wanted to make something novel.
The old-fashioned seemed like the best of both worlds.
The Pseudoscience of Booze Jell-O
Gelatin has to be hot to melt, or else it won’t properly integrate into the final product, which can end up being a goopy, lumpy, separated mess. This whole process is a one-pan operation, so I started by heating water, into which I stirred pure cane sugar until melted. I added the gelatin, stirring energetically with a whisk after it got glommed together and I got scared, since I didn’t have any more on-hand.
Then, as Sagoi cautioned, I had to let it cool, lest I stir the booze in while it was still hot and burn off all the good stuff (aka the alcohol). Next, I dropped and dashed in the bitters and measured out the bourbon. I tasted the final product before I poured the mixture into hollowed-out orange halves, which I had scooped the flesh out of, careful not to puncture the peel that would serve as the vessel for the shot.
(Side note: When I tried the mixture—still warm, in the pan—it tasted cloying, so I added a bit more whiskey. Once it had solidified, however, the flavor of the bourbon was much stronger. Maybe this is some kind of Jell-O shot science, or maybe drinking a hot old-fashioned is just totally disorienting. Beware, the shots tasted strongly of booze once they had cooled. Still, everyone seemed to really like them.)
Just like anything—as I’ve learned resoundingly from my adventures in booze—Jell-O shots require experimentation. Sagoi warned me against the negroni: though perfectly balanced in a glass on the rocks, the well-loved equal-parts cocktail became too bitter once gelatinous. Fresh citrus is challenging, too, as well as pineapple—the acids and delicate composition of each interact with the gelatin in such a way that it won’t properly set.
As for my old-fashioned shots, I think I’ve converted some skeptics. Just don’t expect a round of enthusiastic samplers—at least not until you show them the finished product. For your own sake, you’d better make it beautiful.
Try your hand at the old-fashioned shots with Sagoi’s recipe below. It will yield about 50.
A Recipe for Old-Fashioned Jell-O Shots
What You Need:
4 packets Knox gelatin
2 cups hot water
3/4 cup demerara or turbinado sugar
2 cups of bourbon, preferably one like Buffalo Trace with more vanilla and baking spice
12 drops cherry bitters, like Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla
8 dashes orange bitters, like Regan's
6 dashes Fee's Old Fashioned Bitters
What You Do:
Dissolve gelatin and sugar into hot water. Stir for several minutes until completely dissolved. Allow mixture to cool for 20–25 minutes until room temperature (otherwise it will be too hot and cook off the alcohol).
Add alcohol and bitters. Taste liquid mixture before refrigerating to make sure ratio is to your liking—you can add water if too strong or more sugar if too dry for your palate.
Cut oranges in half lengthwise and scoop out the flesh, being careful not to puncture the skin. (You can do this while waiting for the sugar and gelatin to cool.)
Fill with Jell-O mixture, refrigerate, and then slice into wedges with a sharp knife when cool.
Prior to serving, take a lemon peel and express the oils onto the jello for added aroma.
Photos by Andrew Nawrocki, Groupon