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Punch Drunk Love

Jell-O shots: boozy abomination or under-appreciated innovation?

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May is a month rife with untoward impulses and bad decisions, set into motion by spring fever and the promise of summer. In drinking terms, this involves a revival of frivolous drinks from winter hibernation, and usually in quantities to be regretted in the morning. What better time, then, to consider the Jell-O shot, the boozy mascot of breezy imprudence?

In 2012, a sharp line divides those who slurp from those who don’t and won’t. For devotees – shooters, perhaps – the appeal is simple: They’re cheap, they drown out the taste of alcohol, and, with little to them besides high-proof liquor, they’re an extremely effective way to get wasted. Conversely, for people who like the taste of alcohol when it’s good, pass when it’s not, and prefer PG rated tipsiness to Jersey Shore out takes, the Jell-O shot’s raison d’être is firm grounds to avoid them.

It’s a surprising state of affairs given that Jell-O shots got their start among monarchs, not co-ed lushes. Far before box met bottle and gelled in plastic cups, 19th century French chefs whipped up elaborate boozy jellies – think posh gelatin molds, not what’s smeared on peanut butter – with ingredients like champagne, rose water and star anise.

On this side of the Atlantic, cocktail godfather Jerry Thomas Americanized the jellies by mixing them with homegrown spirits like bourbon and rum – and in strengths fit for an Animal House throw down. In 1862 he published a recipe for Punch Jelly, which congealed everyone’s favorite party beverage into food form. He also offered a caveat: “This preparation is very agreeable refreshment on a cold night, but should be used in moderation,” he wrote. “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.”

Nearly a century later, the first true Jell-O shot arrived when a U.S. naval officer smuggled booze into a dry office party by spiking orange Jell-O. (With global nuclear obliteration looming, can we blame him?) Setting the mix in small paper cups, the man waltzed past security guards undetected – and paved the way for decades of mistakes and morning-after regrets.

Armed with historical research and idle hands, an intrepid friend and I endeavored to make and test, side-by-side, 19th- and 20th century versions of the Jell-O shot. Were they really so different, we wondered? Or does 100-proof liquor have a way of blurring lines?

Sticking to the American scene, we picked a Punch Jelly recipe from the antebellum South and a basic Jell-O shot formula standard across the 50 states. We boiled, stirred, poured and chilled, setting the jelly in its stipulated bundt pan and the shots in neat rows of Dixie cups. Surprisingly, only one modernization was unavoidable to make the jelly nowadays, since isinglass – a gelling agent made from fish bladders – isn’t routinely stocked at the corner market. (Knox plain gelatin substitutes nicely.) Other changes might be desirable – to reduce the shocking amounts of rum, cognac and sugar, for instance – but wecommitted to the original in the name of pure science.

Unfurled from its fluted tin, amber-colored and dotted with citrus peel, our Punch Jelly looked like something that might have glistened on Marie Antoinette’s buffet table. When sliced and served, it became slightly less fetching, and required a knife and fork to eat. (This will take some adjustment for anyone conditioned in the Jell-O shot’s tilt-and slurp procedure.) The taste was akin to the candied version of an old fashioned rum punch: Intense and delicious, but decidedly oddball.

The Jell-O shots, by contrast, offered zero oddball quirks. Next to the exoticism of a bundt-shaped, rum-and-cognac confection, they felt refreshingly familiar and accessible, like network sitcoms and pop music. That is, if sitcoms and music came in Froot Loops flavors made with a liter of vodka.

Over a pot of black coffee the next morning, we concluded that the ancestor and its progeny are starkly different – until they’re not. One is pretty and extraordinary, the other gauche and garden-variety. One challenges conventions, the other confirms them. Both have their place. Both will also get you blind drunk. What was the question, again? And where did I leave my phone last night?