At Ci Siamo, the Danny Meyer restaurant, you can order Jell-O shots made with Campari and French gin served individually in coupe glasses.
Attaboy, the cocktail bar internationally recognized for its cocktail program, offered the shots recently during a party for their 10-year anniversary.
Jell-O shots have been passed around at private bashes thrown by Ellen Van Dusen, the fashion designer known for her bright-colored prints, and Lindsey Adelman, a high-end lighting designer.
Mixing alcohol and sugary gelatin is nothing new. Classic Jell-O shots are easy to make, and the concoctions mask the flavor of cheap booze with jiggle and artificial flavors like cherry or berry blue. But the party snacks have mostly been found at dive bars and house parties.
On menus in Montauk, Dallas and New York City, bartenders are using top-shelf ingredients to craft gelatinous creations with intricate designs and elevated presentations that are nothing like the fraternity version in disposable cups. Mixologists have even started new businesses offering custom options.
“We are looking at people creating actual cocktails in Jell-O form,” said Pamela Wiznitzer, a consultant in New York City who helps bars and restaurants create their cocktail programs. “There are ones that even have designs in them, so not only do they taste great, aesthetically, they are pretty astounding.”
Chris Hannah, who won the award for the U.S. Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail last year and co-owns the New Orleans restaurant Jewel of the South, said he believed the Jell-O shot trend took off over the last decade with the help of a few veteran bar owners who grew tired of taking cocktails so seriously.
“If you work for over a decade, you start wanting to go back to something you made fun of that also makes you happy,” he said. “There is something so funny and tongue-and-cheek about serving Jell-O shots.”
He points to Jeremy Johnson, owner of Meta, a craft cocktail bar in Louisville, K.Y., who started serving Jell-O shots made from 15-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, a rare bourbon that sells for thousands of dollars a bottle. Another leader was Ryan Chetiyawardana, better known as Mr. Lyan, who still doles out baskets of Jell-O shots at his bars in London and Washington, D.C.
In 2020, Jena Derman, a pastry chef, and Jack Schramm, a bartender, started the company Solid Wiggles out of their kitchens in Brooklyn. They now supply their “jelly shots,” as they call them, to Ci Siamo and other high-end bars like Champers Social Club, a champagne bar in SoHo.
“We just had this yearning for fun and a willingness to embrace the silly and unexpected because we’d been cooped up for too long,” Mr. Schramm said. “We sold out in an hour.”
Part of their focus is producing complex flavors. “This isn’t the one note of wild cherry Jell-O you have at college,” Ms. Derman said. “We work with a variety of premium spirits, modifiers like bitters and fresh juices, which combine into tiny balanced cocktails in a single bite.”
At Midnight Rambler, a cocktail bar in Dallas, the bar staff plays with the design and makes Jell-O shots that look like deviled eggs but taste like piña coladas.
This year the shots were available on the menu at Christmas and New Year’s and then were available off-menu the rest of the year. The bar’s staff members figured out how to make theirs without using gelatin — they use a seaweed-based product known as agar-agar instead — so that even vegans can enjoy the shots.
Julie Reiner, a respected bar owner who recently revived Milady’s, a cocktail bar in SoHo, said she wanted to push against what she saw as the highbrow of many luxury bars in New York City.
“So many of the bars that are top-rated are all about the drink, it isn’t about the guest experience and people enjoying themselves,” she said. “I thought we needed to go back to the atmosphere, the ambience.”
Ms. Reiner decided to offer Jell-O shots served on oversize shells that patrons could flip over when they were done, similarly to oysters. “I just want to create this fun moment between people,” she said.
Initially, she had guessed people would buy 20 Jell-O shots a day. The number is closer to 500 a week, she said.
Christian Rowan, a chef who opened Marian’s, an American restaurant in the West Village, added Jell-O shots as a surprise on the bar menu. When patrons order a Negroni it comes with a Jell-O shot version next to it.
“People think it’s another regular negroni, but when you try to drink it, it doesn’t move,” he said, laughing.
Gelatin desserts were once considered an upscale food and were popular with the rich and famous during the Victorian era, said Michele Debczak, a writer who focuses on food history. Jell-O was trademarked in 1897.
In the 1950s, American housewives competed over who could make the most elaborate Jell-O molds. “It was a way to display their domestic skills,” she said. “It was what people brought to the potluck to impress.”
While Jell-O, along with most processed foods, lost its allure in the 1970s and became a frat party staple in the 1990s, Ms. Debczak is not surprised it is trendy again.
“There is nothing else like Jell-O with that sort of texture and the ability to do so many fun things with it,” she said. “I think it is going to stick around. Even if people turn their noses up at it, it’s still something we have all tried and have a soft spot for it and nostalgia for it.”
Mike Demasco, 34, recently tried them with friends at Bird on the Roof in Montauk, N.Y. The restaurant launched its Jell-O shots over the Fourth of July weekend and had to make a new batch in the middle of the shift because they were so popular.
“The plan was to have a sober meal,” said Mr. Demasco, who works in corporate real estate. But then he saw a tray pass his table carrying something he had never seen before: espresso martini Jell-O shots.
“We loved them so much we ordered another round,” he said.
But perhaps, not surprisingly, the Jell-O shot craze, however appealing and creative, might be short-lived, Ms. Wiznitzer, the consultant, said.
“I think fads really only have a certain timeline until you see everyone do it,” she said. “How many times did you get excited about Frosé at the beginning?”