There’s very little about today’s “new normal” that feels, well, normal. Monkeypox is back, wars are raging, and women’s right to choose what happens to their own bodies is in jeopardy. At the same time, the food and beverage industry is embracing nostalgia and, at times, straight-up weirdness, with boozy Shirley Temples popping onto cocktail menus, and a fast food joint making a surprisingly popular hard seltzer.
It’s hard to ignore such a stark juxtaposition. The more the rest of the world feels somber and unsafe, the more the drinks world embraces playfulness, whimsy, and trends that are reminiscent of simpler times. And there’s perhaps no trend that encompasses such fancifulness quite as perfectly as the return of the beloved Jell-O shot.
“We were all kind of starved for something playful and whimsical,” says bartender and Solid Wiggles co-founder Jack Schramm, whose vibrant, intricately piped jelly cakes and shots toe the line between kitsch and luxury. “Everything is so serious and so heavy in the world right now, so this is a nice escape.” That escape comes in the form of eye-catching treats like the Cosmos Jelly Cake, an interstellar bite with flavors inspired by the classic Cosmopolitan cocktail.
Don't Miss A DropGet the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.
Don’t be fooled into thinking these gelatinous creations will look or taste like the bright red shooters in plastic cups you used to guzzle without a care in the world during your collegiate years. “We found a triad between drinking, eating, and looking and seeing,” says Solid Wiggles co-founder Jena Derman. Accordingly, her cakes are as stunning as anything you’d buy at a high-end bakery, with flavors more attuned to the adult palate.
Plenty of bars and restaurants are embracing the nostalgic treat, but perhaps none are more famous for doing so than NYC’s Art Bar. Alexis Emmet, general manager of the West Village watering hole, began making Jell-O shots over a decade ago during the holiday season. One year, though, she forgot to take down the sign touting the Jell-O shot special, and customers continued to request them. “I’ve created a monster that has to be fed constantly,” Emmet jokes. “But it’s a lovable monster that people enjoy.”
And enjoy them, they certainly do. Emmet reports that the bar now sells well over 100 Jell-O shots on an average Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night, with rotating weekly flavors inspired by classic cocktails, served in syringes. The bar also creates special-edition concoctions for specific occasions, like the annual layered rainbow shots served during Pride Month, or the Irish flag offered each St. Paddy’s Day. Emmet used to make the shots no more than once a week; she’s now tasked with making them every day to keep up with demand. “Jell-O is my life now,” she says, laughing.
But who’s actually drinking these sweet, wiggly delicacies? Despite preconceived notions about Jell-O shots, Art Bar consumers of the treats vary in age — Emmet notes that her consumers range in age from celebrators of 21st birthdays to older consumers tasting Jell-O for the first time. Not only are the shots made with high-end ingredients and modern gelatin to give them a more appealing texture than the Jell-O of our youth, they’re undeniably fun. “Everybody loves Jell-O,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what their age is.”