There's just something about a Jell-O shot that hits us right in the feels. Those nostalgic little cups of jiggly, flavored booze are so damn festive. But the days of plastic ketchup cups filled with half-solid Burnett's and strawberry powder are behind us. Believe it or not, Jell-O shots can be made upscale enough to serve at your next grown-up gathering. Freya Estreller of Ludlows Cocktails Co.—formerly of innovative creamery Coolhaus—spends her days creating upscale packaged Jell-O shots, and she knows a thing or two about elevating the college party classic. Freya gave us her basic know-how, along with some inspiration for how to make our Jell-O shots adult AF.
After spending years making artisanal ice cream sandwiches at Coolhaus, how did you become a Jell-O shot connoisseur? Looking at the alcohol space a couple of years ago, I wanted to elevate and reinvent some products in the traditionally bastardized world of ready-to-drink cocktails. I just remembered doing Jell-O shots in college—now we're older, working adults, and I know we still enjoy Jell-O shots, but a lot of us don't have the time to make them. Now you don't have to.
Where does one start making Jell-O shots that don't give guests frat party PTSD? When we started making these, we leaned toward sweeter cocktails. Trying to make a dirty martini Jell-O shot, or a bloody mary one, just doesn't sound good. We also wanted to branch out from vodka—listen, we've all made vodka Jell-O shots. But can you use tequila and make a margarita shot? Can you make them with bourbon and make a Manhattan or a Vieux Carré one?
So what's the basic ratio for these shots? It's one tablespoon gelatin to a half cup of water, a half cup of juice, three-quarters of a cup of alcohol, and one quarter cup sugar. If you're making vegan shots, you can substitute the gelatin for one teaspoon of agar agar, a vegan product derived from seaweed.
Is there an ideal type of booze to use as a base? All booze can work. I will say that the only liqueurs that can be tricky are the cream-based ones, but even those are usually high enough proof to set stably. Where people really make mistakes is by using too much booze, and it doesn't set. Or using really acidic fruit juices—if you use too much pineapple or grapefruit juice, it can break down the jellifying properties of gelatin and agar agar.
And is it necessary to use a high-quality liquor? Or is this a good excuse to use up bottom-shelf booze? It's similar to the concept of cooking with alcohol. Like when you're cooking with wine, it actually does matter what kind of wine you use. So I do like to use good alcohol. I wouldn't go around using Pappy Van Winkle bourbon—I actually think someone did that once, and people were furious—but I would use, for example, Old Overholt or Rittenhouse Rye.
What are your favorite flavor combinations? For bourbon-based Jell-O shots, I like to keep it simple with a Manhattan: some good vermouth, an Amarena cherry, leaving the cherry in the shot. I love rum punch ones—tiki cocktails are typically very sweet, so they do well in Jell-O shot form. I'm also really into mezcal right now, so I've been playing around with substituting mezcal for vodka in traditional drinks, like a mezcal mule with ginger beer and candied ginger on top of the shot.
How do you like to serve the shots for parties? If you're going for volume, go ahead and do the plastic cup thing. But if you're really looking to impress people, maybe at a dinner party, I would make them in a baking dish or tray that's at least two inches tall, so you can cut out the shots. You could serve them on nice spoons, or put a fresh cherry in each one and use the stem to pick up the shots, or you could even use a peeled lime or orange and make wedge shots.
I also think the concept of topping and decorating your shots helps elevate them. For some reason, when you top Jell-O shots with Pop Rocks, people freak the fuck out. They haven't seen Pop Rocks in so long, and the interaction between the crackling and the softness of the Jell-O shot, plus the alcohol—it's such a good synergy.
Do you like to serve them alongside cocktails, or in place of them? I definitely like using Jell-O shots to mark an occasion or an event, like serving them as an amuse bouche at dinner. There's a restaurant here in LA called Providence, and they once served a really awesome rum and coke Jell-O shot before dinner. You could also serve them as shots at the end of a meal, as a digestif, right before dessert. You could even serve them on a tray and have your guests take them as soon as they get to the party. I think, especially at a high-end event, the worst thing you could do is leave your homemade Jell-O shots all alone on a table to melt.
Any more tips for making Jell-O shots at home? Make sure you have enough space in your fridge. I've done that before, where I start making something, then look in my fridge and I'm like, oh shit, I have nowhere to put it. And you want to definitely make them the day before your event to ensure they set. Nobody wants a melty, goopy Jell-O shot. This has more to do with agar than gelatin, but with agar you really want to get it super-boiling so that the jellification works. If you don't boil it, it won't.
And, please, use enough sugar. Nobody likes a tasteless Jell-O shot. When you're thinking about the golden ratio of cocktail-making, you need sweetness to really bring the flavors to life.
When you start to talk to people about Jell-O shots, in college, there was always that one friend who would do it. There was that Jell-O shot person. Now, we can all be that person.
Thanks for speaking with us.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2015.