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Jell-O Shots Go Upmarket on Portland’s Missisippi Street

Friday, August 29, 2014


Interurban's jello shot

Interurban's jello shot. Photograph: Peter Koptiuch

 Jell-O shots, once associated with dark dives and keg parties, are getting a makeover as one Portland drinking establishment gets serious about the party staple. 

It's true, they have a pretty bad reputation. Most of us first experienced them when we were younger, typically at a birthday party or just your average college Thursday, when someone passed around a tray of lime green boozed-up gelatin. Associated with cheap spirits, peer pressure, and alcoholic excess, few have taken them seriously.

All that may change, however, with one Portland watering hole leading the charge to make craft jello shots a thing of sophistication and beauty. 

And why wouldn’t they be? Given the styles of cocktails available to the Portland masses - craft cocktails on tap at Imperial or The Bent Brick, bottled cocktails at Clyde Common and Boke Bowl, and sous vide-infused cocktails at Racion and Atula – it seems like only a short step to the craft cocktail Jell-O shot. Sadly, the notion of craft cocktail Jell-O shots has not swept the city as one would hope, at least not yet. Jell-O shots are still usually seen advertised in dark dives where for around $1 you can get a small plastic cup of orange- or cherry-flavored, vodka-based shots you have to dig out with a straw.  

A keg stand with Veuve Clicquot

Craft cocktail Jell-O shots, on the other hand, are like doing a keg stand with Veuve Clicquot, or having Meryl Streep cut your birthday cake. They are thrilling, ceremonious, and somehow dignified. There’s proof of their refined origins, too. In Jerry Thomas’ book from the 19th century, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion, he describes how to make a punch jelly where for every ounce of punch a half-ounce of “isinglass,” or gelatin, should be used and finally set in molds to rest. He further explains that the strength of these jellies is so potent, especially to the “softer sex,” that they could render them useless for waltzing after supper.

At least one Portland establishment has been taking notes, waltzing be damned. Mississippi's Interurban Publican’s Table serves craft Jell-O shots in a heavy tumbler, with a demitasse spoon for eating at your leisure. When asked what led Interurban – a dimly-lit bar of dark wood and some well-poured cocktails – to put a Jell-O shot on the menu, barman Nick Lasik replied: “It was originally intended for the menu of a company holiday party and stuck.

"People just like Jell-O shots.”  

Interurban’s cocktail menu changes frequently, but their jello shots section is a mainstay. There’s the Negroni Jell-O shot made with Cinzano, Campari and Aperol. It looks like a dark piece of amber and has a pleasantly bitter taste. They also serve the Polyanna, a classic cocktail from 1934 made into modern Jell-O shot form. Dry gin, grenadine, lemon and pineapple make this shot surprisingly refreshing. It’s not too shabby with food, either 

Proportions need to be exact

There’s a lot more going on than just mixing vodka and water with a box of flavored gelatin here. To take a classic cocktail and turn it into a Jell-O shot the proportions need to be more exact. The ratio of gelatin and sugar needs to go up depending on how much alcohol is used, because the heat of the alcohol that comes through gelatin is more pronounced. If not done right, you could wind up with a flavorless bomb.  

It’s probably for the best, then, that we leave Jell-O shots in the hands of the professionals.

Lasik knows that, too: “We have a lot of groups who come in on a Friday or Saturday night looking for Jager or Fireball, but we’re a classic cocktail bar and don’t carry those bottles. We have jello shots as a way to have fun with our clientele while remaining true to what we do here.

"Besides,” he adds, “I’ve never gotten hung over from our Jell-Oshots.”

Some might argue that Jell-Oshots aren’t classy, but why shouldn’t we play with our food? We are a city of pretty pink boxes filled with donuts from a place that once carried a “Nyquil shot” donut until the city shut that operation down.

That’s what makes Portland great. We try to get away with it, and when we do it’s wonderful.

So here’s to one college tradition returning, bigger and better, for grown-up Portlanders!

Amanda Benson

Amanda Benson received an MFA in nonfiction in California before heading to New York to study at the French Culinary Institute. She has worked in kitchens in both Brooklyn and Portland. She continues her education by eating and writing about food. 


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