Mixopedia: How Aspic Evolved Into the Pappy Jell-O Shot - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Mixopedia: How Aspic Evolved Into the Pappy Jell-O Shot

For reasons that remain unfathomable, people have long been drawn to food and drink that wobbles. Aspic dates to the medieval era; it could be made by boiling down collagen-rich pigs’ ears and then letting the liquid cool into a semi-solid state. Much of the world was then subsisting on flavorless, sticky gruel, so aspic’s appeal makes some sense. Having something brown, jiggly, and meat-flavored was no doubt a welcome diversion, essentially the Netflix of the Middle Ages.

This fascination persisted as sugar and fruits found their way into the semi-solid matrix. And then gelatin somehow made the leap into drink starting in the early 19th century, even making an appearance in the ur-cocktail guide published by Jerry Thomas in 1862. Thomas featured a recipe for “punch jelly,” a punch that wiggled with the addition of isinglass, a gelling agent derived from the air bladders of sturgeon.

“The preparation is a very agreeable refreshment on a cold night,” Thomas noted, “but should be used in moderation; the strength of the punch is so artfully concealed by its admixture with the gelatine, that 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.”

Drinkers of the time evidently did not clamor for quavering drinks, as few other recipe books embraced the wobble. This disinterest evidently lasted until Prohibition. That’s when enterprising drinkers discovered a legal advantage to reinventing a liquid as a solid.

The 18th amendment prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” The Volstead Act, which provided the legal framework for enforcing the amendment, specifically cited “intoxicating beverages.” Which led some to wonder: A beverage is by definition a liquid, right? And if transmuted into a solid, then it would no longer be a beverage, correct?

In 1920 the Fresno Morning Republican ran a story entitled, “Why Not Gelatine Cocktails?” In it, the uncredited author speculated that if “the eighteenth amendment prohibits only intoxicating liquids and not intoxicating solids, nothing remains to do but devise a method of presenting the traditional drinks in solid form.”

The author continued on to helpfully point out that “a very little gelatine or agar would transform a cold Martini cocktail from a liquid to a solid.” Other drinks could be equally hacked, using a popular type of seaweed that contained hydrocolloids once commonly used in making custards and puddings. The “sea-moss highball may be the next device to take the place in the courts,” the article suggested.

For reasons that remain unfathomable, people have long been drawn to food and drink that wobbles.

If the seaweed cocktail actually emerged from the ocean and walked on land, it did not find a niche in which to survive long enough to have its day in court. Regrettably, I have found no record of sea-moss highballs or other algal cocktails.

Jell-O shots emerged after Prohibition (the Jell-O brand was introduced in 1897), when semi-solid shots continued to serve as a handy subterfuge. Tom Lehrer, the brilliant piano-playing lyricist, satirist, and mathematician, recalled in an interview a decade ago that he made shots with vodka and Jell-O during a two-year stint working with the National Security Agency. This allowed him to bring intoxicating refreshment to a Christmas party on a naval base where alcoholic beverages were banned. “It worked,” Lehrer said. “I recommend it. Orange Jell-O.”

Jell-O shots had another cultural moment in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until well into the current cocktail renaissance of the present century that the Jell-O shot blossomed. They were the subject of numerous books, including The Jello Shots Handbook (2006) and 50 Decadent Jell-O Shot Recipes (2013). They cropped up in craft cocktail bars and at times got quite fancy—as if the jester of the drinking world had suddenly been invited to its own coronation, where it swapped a goofy hat for crown, scepter, and ermine cape.

Why this occurred when it did is subject to debate. But it’s not hard to see a convergence of nostalgia and a weariness of overly serious bar craft fueling a rising interest. At the same time, craft Jell-O shots paid sly homage to modern trends, as wiggly shots were essentially molecular mixology for kids.

I would date Peak Jell-O shot to 2014. That’s when the Obscura cocktail lounge in Cincinnati rolled out a Cosmopolitan-inspired Jell-O shot, a collision of drink trends comparable to tectonic plates colliding. It was created by bartender and bar consultant Benjamin Newby. He called it the “Cosmowobbleton.”

In the years since, the Jello-O shot has proudly jumped the shark. It’s become a mark of hipster irony, reaching an apogee when Meta, a cocktail bar in Louisville, Kentucky, offered Pappy Van Winkle Jell-O shots, which came with a side of wry commentary on the Pappy obsession.

Let us pause for a moment to respect the Jell-O shot’s fleeting reign in the cocktail world. Jell-O shots have by and large been dethroned and exiled from the king’s chamber, sent back to the cheaply paneled frat-house basement from which they had lately emerged. Reports indicate that they have been jiggling happily all the way.

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