Summer has arrived, and it’s time to get back in touch with your favorite drink from college: the Jell-O Shot. A frat party classic, favorite of teenage girls, and instant party starter, Jell-O shots have now become relatively mainstream and you can mix-and-match to create your own perfect rendition for any occasion. Served in traditional plastic shot glasses, or cut into squares, Jell-O shots can be made with the alcohol of your choice (vodka is the most popular, followed by rum, flavored liquors, and sometimes grain alcohol) and allow for maximum creativity with minimum effort.
When did Jell-O shots bust through a brick wall and on to the scene like the goofier kid brother of the Kool-Aid man?
Jell-O shots became popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when they started appearing on drinks menus at bars. There is some distinction between a Jell-O shot, and a jelly shot – Jell-O shots are made with the branded gelatin dessert, and are easily spotted by their neon hues, while jelly shots are made with straight gelatin (not specifically Jell-O) and can come in different colors, flavors, and shapes, leaving room for more nuanced flavor pairings and in general a higher quality shot that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to serve at an adult party. Jell-O shots are most commonly served in small, white Dixie cups or ice cube trays when made for parties (cheap and easy cleanup) and often lead to a room littered with crushed miniature cups.
Do you need Jell-O to make a Jell-O Shot? Technically, no. Jell-O is simply the most popular product associated with alcoholic gelatin creations — you can substitute with generic gelatin (Knox Gelatin is a popular brand available in most grocery stores) and then add your own flavoring. This allows for a much wider range of experimentation, as you aren’t limited to the fruity flavors made famous by Jell-O. Get creative with herbs (boil them with simple syrup to impart the flavor) and make some fancier combinations than grape, cherry, lemon, and lime that will suit a more adult palate.
To get started
To make Jell-O Shots, all you need is the alcohol of your choice, boiling water, and a packet of Jell-O. In our standard, no-frills Jell-O shot recipe you’ll find the basics. But who wants a basic Jell-O shot? The fun is in making your own custom shots with food coloring, flavoring, and more. You can experiment with how solid you’d like your Jell-O shots to be (if you use too much gelatin, they’re impossible to slurp out of their containers, too little and they’re a slippery mess) and vary the ratio of Jell-O to alcohol. General guidelines are to use a 1:1 water-to-alcohol ratio; if you use more, you’ll get some very potent Jell-O shots that you’ll have a hard time convincing your guests to consume.
Make it fancy
You can also make layered Jell-O shots, if you plan ahead. Use individual containers or a 9×13 brownie pan, and pour the first layer in and refrigerate until solid. Then add a new color or flavor on top of the first layer, and once you’ve decided your masterpiece is done, cut them into small cubes to serve. If you use a different alcohol in each layer, this is a great way to make a deconstructed Jell-O shot version of your favorite cocktails – for example, a margarita Jell-O shot could have one layer of tequila, one layer of lime, and one layer of orange (using triple sec or Cointreau) that you can garnish with sea salt.
Michelle Palm, author of The Jelly Shot Test Kitchen: Jell-ing Classic Cocktails—One Drink at a Time, has some great tips on her website for Jell-O shot “best practices.”
When it comes to Jell-O shots, the sky’s the limit. You can mix and match any flavors you can think of and even get creative, cutting them into shapes (Jell-O jiggler-style) or serve them layered in clear shot glasses. Jell-O shots are also a perfectly convenient item to bring to a picnic or bonfire, and you can pack them easily in ziploc bags for travel. Check out these recipes for some all-star Jell-O shots that are sure to start the party:
Named after the popular New Orleans Mardi Gras cocktail, these shots require advance preparation to make the two layers, as well as dark and light rums. Hurricanes are a fruity, boozy rum drink made popular by Pat O’Brien’s in the French Quarter, party central of New Orleans. Get our Hurricane Jell-O Shots recipe.
This 1880s vintage cocktail made famous by New Orleans bartender Henry Ramos gets a makeover. The recipe is something delicious, with orange blossom water and all. Get our Ramos Gin Fizz Jell-O Shots recipe.
Poppy Tooker, the host of Louisiana Eats! radio show, weighs in on “Jell-O shots, the perfect party food,” with no spills … ever! Poppy recommends following the directions for “speed set” on the back of the Jell-O box for best results in the shortest amount of time. Get our How to Make the Perfect Jell-O Shot video.
4. Firecracker Shots
These firecracker shots are the exact right way to celebrate all things American. Blue curacao and grenadine lend the blue and red flavors, and you should top them off with a dollop of whipped cream (fresh or Reddi-Wip will do in a pinch). Try the recipe.
These cherry amaretto shots feature cherry Jell-O and amaretto, an almond liqueur. The Jell-O shots taste good with any flavor of alcohol though, so you can substitute any liqueur for the amaretto. Try Cherry Heering for a double cherry shot. Try the recipe.
6. The Bramble Jell-O Shot
The Bramble is made with grape Jell-O, gin, creme de mure, lemon juice, sugar, and fresh blackberries. This recipe replicates the Bramble cocktail with almost identical ingredients, and is the perfect choice to serve at a fancy party where you’d normally not expect to find Jell-O shots. Try the recipe.
Pimm’s Cup jelly shots are made in a loaf pan and garnished with tons of fresh ingredients: strawberries, orange slices, mint, and cucumber. This recipe uses ginger ale and lemon syrup for added flavor, and unflavored gelatin to preserve the integrity of the fresh ingredients (no neon-lime-green here). Try the recipe.
8. Ruby Red Jell-O Shots
Lemon peel ruby red Jell-O shots are especially cute for serving — fresh grapefruit juice imparts a ton of flavor, and you pour the mixture into hollowed-out lemon halves. Cut in quarters to serve. Try the recipe.
9. Pink Lemonade Jell-O Shots
Pink lemonade gets a new lease on life in this recipe for Jell-O shots, made with vodka, fresh lemons, sugar, gelatin, and some food coloring. These are great for afternoon barbecues or taking on a picnic since they’re very portable. Try the recipe.
Or don’t …
Too lazy to make your own Jell-O shots? Recently, Ludlow’s Cocktail Jelly Shots have come on the market (and they were even carried at Whole Foods!), taking the Jell-O shot game to a whole new artisanal level. They’ve taken the flavors of craft cocktails — Old Fashioneds, Margaritas, Moscow Mules — and managed to shrink them into jewel-tone, single-serve packets that are only 30-proof. Other flavors include Planter’s Punch with Trinidadian rum, and Meyer Lemon Drop, complete with five-time distilled vodka and a hint of rosemary. These are a clear step above your average frat party.
Jell-O shots are a fun and easy way to jumpstart a party, and can be easily customized for any occasion. Start with the basics, then experiment with flavor combos, and be sure to write down your favorite alcohol and flavor combinations so you don’t forget. And don’t wait for an excuse to try them out at your next get-together — as they say, “There’s always room for Jell-O.”