Created in San Francisco: The Jello Shot

Drink Like San Franciscan:

The History of the Jello Shot Has Roots in San Francisco

The story behind a lot of famous cocktails, like the martini, mai tai and margarita, have a lot of differing opinions about who actually created the drink and where they were first made. While there are several stories surrounding the Jello Shot, the following story seems the most plausible, although it tells the tale of a very different version of the popular shot. Despite other disputing claims, the Jello Shot, in our opinion, definitely deserves a spot on the list of cocktails created in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The History of the Jello Shot

Did you know that potent, gelatin based, libations were indulged in, by San Francisco’s upper crust and trend setting socialites, during the Victorian Era? “The Professor”, Jerry Thomas, one of San Francisco’s most well known bartenders of the era and the author of the first Cocktail recipe book in the United States, was the first person to serve the libation that we call the “jello shot” in a bar room and to record the recipe. The history of so many popular boozy concoctions can be traced to the Bay Area. This history includes the modern dive bar staple.

When Jerry Thomas first created his “Punch Jelly”, as the drink was called in his book, “The Bar Tender’s Guide”, published in 1862, Jello Brand Gelatin was nearly 3 decades away from being invented. Making gelatin based dishes was a long, laborious and, well, stinky process in the Victorian Era. Fish based gelatin was used back then, as well as animal based gelatin and only the elite indulged in gelatin based foods. Being able to serve a gelatin based center piece in the Victorian Era was a Status symbol. It demonstrated that you were able to hire a cooking staff to attend to such tedious and laborious processes of making a gelatin based dish.

Jerry Thomas is regarded as the “father of modern mixology”. He worked at the finest bars in the finest hotels. He was not only a maker of drinks but a showman. He dressed in fine clothing and wore expensive and flashy jewelry, including multiple diamond rings. He created many original cocktails for the purpose of wowing his patrons and earning great tips. One of his most famous drink creations, the Blue Blazer, was a rif on a hot Toddy that involves pouring flaming liquid between two silver mugs, creating a blue flame to entertain the bar guests.

The recipe for Thomas’s Punch Jelly is elaborate and labor intensive. I read an account, of some people in Brooklyn, that tried preparing the historical recipe. It took a long time and it created a stinky fish smell, as the gelatin used was the old fashioned kind that requires a long process to remove the impurities. It was also difficult to get the gelatin to congeal using the recipe and multiple attempts had to be made. In spite of the god awful smell of processing the gelatin, the end product was reported to have turned out absolutely delicious and it was hard not to over indulge. It was sweet and fruity and not at all fishy. But; like a pot brownie, it goes in easily and hits you hard, if you do not indulge in moderation.

Jello Brand gelatin was a game changer for boozy, gelatin based concoctions. It makes it an easy and fairly odorless process. Jello and Knox brand gelatins were some of the very first convenience foods introduced in the United States. The ease of preparation eventually lead to a decrease in status of gelatin and by the 1980’s gelatin based foods fell out of fashion. The modern Jello Shot is considered more of a low brow treat, a thing of dive bars and fraternity parties. In spite of the fall in status of the gelatin based boozy treats over the years, the jello shot does remain a guilty pleasure of the bar world today. With St. Patrick’s Day, Bay to Breakers and Bottlerock coming up, I am sure many, many Jello Shots will be indulged in throughout the Bay Area. Bear in mind, the next time you slurp down a holiday jello shot that in the early days of San Francisco’s history, to enjoy a jello shot or technically a Punch Jelly, would have been a status symbol in the city by the bay.