Flickr User hippiebus1970
Flickr User hippiebus1970

The Chemistry Behind Making the Best Jello Shots

Flickr User hippiebus1970
Flickr User hippiebus1970

Almost everyone I know has at least one Jello Shot story. Though most of these tales don’t have happy endings, the slurp-able alcoholic gelatinous shooters are a party staple. Nowadays, even upscale bartenders are reimagining these easy-to-consume solids.

Some have even gone so far as to write books on the subject. One of our favorites, the Jelly Shot Test Kitchen, gives precise instructions for turning cocktails into sophisticated gels.

Solid, liquid, or gel?

Much of the magic of Jello Shots is in their apparent transition from liquid to solid. In reality, gelatin is a gel rather than a solid. Put simply, this means that the jello is mainly liquid by weight, but this liquid is thickened by the addition of long molecules (polymers) and tiny particles (colloids).

Within a gel, these particles link and stick together in a process called cross-linking. Once linked, the particles can no longer flow past each other, making the resulting mixture appear solid. In Jello Shots, the liquid portion is made up of the water and booze, while the gelatin supplies the polymers and colloids.

Gelatin, the main gelling agent in jello, is a collagen derivative. Collagen, a tough, flexible protein, is found primarily in animals’ connective and protective tissues. When heated in water, it becomes gelatin, a versatile substance with a surprisingly wide range of applications.

Gel well

At a certain point, adding more booze to Jello Shots just makes them gross. However, there are a few ways to strengthen your shots without sacrificing taste.

One of the biggest factors is creating the strongest gel possible. The water binding power of any substance is measured in what’s called “bloom.” Though the term may sound like it comes from gelatin’s tendency to bloom (soften and expand) in water, it’s actually named for Oscar T. Bloom, the scientist who came up with the test that measures gel strength.

A bloom of 50 is considered weak while one of around 200 is on the strong side. For comparison, Knox brand gelatin has a rating of approximately 225. Using a stronger gelatin will result in a stronger gel.

Take your best shot

One way to make the gel stronger is to hydrate it in two steps. Grocery store gelatin usually comes in powder form. This powder is made up of tiny granules that must fill with water before the colloids and polymers can begin to spread and cross-link into a gel.

First, soak the gelatin powder in a bowl of cool or warm water. This step helps ensure that no dry gelatin gets trapped within a bubble of hydrated gelatin. Once it’s a thin, pasty texture — known as a slurry — heat it until the whole solution becomes consistent.

Another way to incorporate all of the powder is to boil it in water until it is hydrated.

Hit the Lab

Since gelatin is an animal by-product, your vegetarian or vegan friends might need another option. One is agar-agar, a seaweed derivative that’s often found in Asian candies. This substance tends to be more crumbly and less chewy than gelatin, so some experimentation may be necessary to craft the perfect agar-agar shot.

Only you can discover the exact ratio of booze to water that’s perfect for you. Since one of the easiest ways to improve your Jello shots is to improve the quality of your liquor, start with a mid-range spirit.

Then, decide your ratio of water to booze. Many sources suggest 2/3 cup hot water to 2/3 cup booze, so this ratio can be a good starting point. Others propose using 4-5 oz of water and anywhere from 9 to 14 oz of booze. Internet Jello enthusiasts also gives some more specific pairing ideas such as using lime Jello with tequila, pineapple with coconut rum, or cherry with whipped cream vodka.

What's the Right Way to Make a Sazerac?

If you pronounce New Orleans "New Or-leens," or if you can’t get enough of those Big Ass Beers sold on Bourbon Street, you’re probably not actually from New Orleans. But if you’re feeling adventurous and missing the Big Easy, a Sazerac might be just what the doctor ordered. 

‘Tails and Stories

A few hundred years ago, you might have actually gotten a doctor’s order for a Sazerac. One of the drink's origin stories claims that it was invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. According to this tale, Mr. Peychaud mixed up the drink with his eponymous bitters and served it in an egg coupe in his shop. 

A more likely origin story states that the drink was invented by a different New Orleans resident (though in the same neighborhood). Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar to Aaron Bird and went into the import business. One of his products happened to be Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy. While Taylor was importing, Bird renamed his bar the Sazerac House and began serving a house cocktail that featured Taylor’s brandy and, as the story goes, bitters made by his neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Peychaud.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe's grape crops were decimated by an infestation of American aphids. In just four years, French wine production was cut by 67 percent, and even the most dedicated cognac drinkers switched to whiskey. For New Orleans, that meant switching to rye whiskey that was shipped to the city down the Ohio River and through the Mississippi. Thomas Handy, who owned the Sazerac Bar during that time period, likely switched the drink's main ingredient. This take on the signature cocktail is the one that found its way into the 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How To Mix Them, with the recipe calling for "good whiskey," not Sazerac cognac. 

The origins of the Sazerac’s name is vague. It’s possible that it was a nod to the fact that it was the bar's house cocktail, but it’s also possible that it’s a reference to the brand of brandy. In those days, “cocktail” referred to a specific alcoholic drink format. As put forth by The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, a “cock-tail” is “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” If you wanted this type of drink with whiskey in it, you would ask for a Whiskey Cocktail. If you wanted Sazerac brandy (until the aphid plague, at least), you'd ask for a Sazerac cocktail.

Hit the Lab

Sazerac Recipe:

2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.25 oz simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
2 oz good rye whiskey (use the good stuff)
lemon peel for garnish

Place the sugar cube into an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube and muddle. Add whiskey and one large ice cube and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
What’s the Right Way to Make a Caipirinha?
Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0

The Rio Olympics start in just a few weeks, and all eyes are on Brazil. To celebrate, we decided to focus on the country’s most famous cocktail creation: the Caipirinha.

In form, the Caipirinha is pretty much a Brazilian Daiquiri. It’s made from sugar, lime, and cachaça. Cachaça could be considered a cousin to rum, but it is altogether unique. While most rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice.

Unlike rum, which can be made anywhere, cachaça can only be made in Brazil. Though it’s often sold unaged, it is usually matured in woods that are native to Brazil, like peanut and balm. As with wine, beer, and whiskey, different kinds of wood affect the product inside differently.

The classifications of cachaça aren’t based on the type of cask in which it’s aged. It can get a bit confusing: Spirit that is not stored in wood or is kept in stainless steel vats before it’s bottled is often called branca (white). But cachaça aged in wood that doesn’t color the liquor may also be labeled as branca. This category goes under several other names, including prata (silver) and clássica (classic).

Cachaça that’s stored or aged in wood is usually labeled as amarela (yellow), in reference to its color. These may also be labeled as ouro (gold). Envelhecida (aged) cachaça, a subtype of amarela, is a bit more involved: it’s considered aged if more than 50 percent of the content of the bottle has been aged for at least a year in a barrel that’s 700 liters or smaller.

Cachaça is the “third most produced distilled drink in the world,” according to Alcohol In Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Though more than 5000 brands existed in 2008, it was relatively ignored outside of Brazil until the recent resurgence of craft cocktails. In fact, until 2013, it had to be labeled “Brazilian rum” to be imported into the U.S. As a result, it’s often mistaken by many people for being a type of rum.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything definite about the origins of the Caipirinha. Like the Mojito and the Old Fashioned, the formula was perhaps first used in folk medicine. Carlos Lima, the executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça) told Casa e Jardim that a mix of lime, garlic, and honey with a pour of cachaça was probably used in São Paulo around 1918 as a remedy for the Spanish Flu.

As the story goes, someone eventually decided to skip the garlic and honey. Then, to balance the acidity of the lime, sugar was added. Over time, the drink spread into bars, ice entered the equation, and it became the Caipirinha we know today.


Like the Mojito, the classic Caipirinha recipe is quite simple, but it’s also been the subject of many, many variations. We’ve included the International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe as well as a modern take on the drink.

Modified from the IBA website.

2 ounces Cachaça
1/2 of a lime
1 tablespoon sugar

Muddle lime and sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Fill with ice and pour cachaça over it. Stir and enjoy.

Prata B. (Puerto Rico Asta Ah Brazil)
Recipe by Luis Ramos, bar manager of Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco.

1 3/4 ounces Avua Prata Cachaça
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple gomme syrup
1/2 ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Grated nutmeg, lime zest, lime wheel for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and stir until glass frosts. Top glass with grated nutmeg, lime zest, and lime wheel.


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