Internet lore states that vodka jelly was invented by American singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer during Christmas 1955.
He was at the time serving in the army, having been drafted for the regulation two years as was customary at the time. As the festive season approached, him and some friends started to make plans for a Christmas party. The biggest drawback as they saw it was that there was a ban on all alcoholic beverages on the base. So Tom figured that if they could introduce spirits into a solid food, it would no longer be technically a beverage.
They experimented with plum duffs, Christmas puddings and so on. The problem was that while you can indeed get a fair amount of booze in such desserts, the amount you have to eat to get drunk would leave you feeling pretty uncomfortable. Plus of course you’d be lining your stomach as you go, which slows intoxication.
It was Tom who hit on the solution: a vodka recipe employing jelly, or what the Americans call Jell-O, which is a brand name. It took some experimentation to find out how much vodka could be added to the mix with the jelly still being able to set (or the correct vodka jelly shots ratio, as it is technically termed). The answer is: quite a decent amount. If working with standard EU strength vodka, which is typically 40 per cent alcohol by volume, you can make up a mixture of water and vodka with the vodka comprising half to a third of the total. If you think about a bowl full of jelly, that is quite a lot of vodka.
So Tom and his buddies made there vodka jelly shots and took them into the party under the noses of the guards. He recalls it as being a very good party. He went fishing afterwards and lost his hat, although that wasn’t connected to the party.
The thing is though, while this story is actually true, it doesn’t mean that Tom invented vodka jelly. Having said that, as it spread through US army bases it certainly helped to promote its popularity in the States. But actually, vodka jelly has been around a lot longer than that. Believe it or not, there is a recipe book dating from 1862 with a jelly shot recipe. So we have to assume that it goes back even further than that. That particular recipe called for the mixing of gelatine with punch, so the actual spirit would have been whatever the punch was made with, quite likely rum. Gin and brandy were popular spirits of the day, too.
Did vodka jelly change the course of World War One?
So vodka jelly shots and strong vodka jelly recipes have been around for over one and a half centuries. Lord Kitchener was said to be very fond of vodka jelly. When he was posing for the picture for the famous “I want you” recruitment poster, he was rumoured to have downed more than a dozen jelly shots, and the artist painting him out to keep coming out from behind his canvas to wipe jelly from Kitchener’s walrus moustache. We can but imagine that what Lord Kitchener was actually saying when he was pointing his finger and looking stern was “I want you – to fetch me some more vodka jelly shots.” Of course, we can never know this for sure.
Perhaps taking their lead from Lord Kitchener, vodka jelly became hugely popular among the troops in the trenches. With all the death, danger and mayhem, the men had very few sources of comfort or fun. So the twice weekly vodka jelly parties that were held all along the western front provided no shortage of light relief.
Jelly shots and the Christmas Truce
During the famous Christmas Truce of 1917, it was said that the spectators of the England-Germany football match (which Germany won 3-1 in extra time, before going on to lose the war), many of the spectators kept themselves warm with shots of vodka jelly. The reason for this was that they couldn’t get hold of Bovril, which was more commonly used to keep warm during football matches (and remains to be so to this day, along with prawn sandwiches, egg, pickles and sausage rolls). Because there were so many dead horses lying around, it was fairly easy to boil up animal bones to produce gelatine. You might well ask whey they didn’t make some kind of Bovril substitute from the horse meat, and the answer to that it that the preferred to eat vodka jelly as it’s fun to get drunk.
The Germans had never seen vodka jelly before this Christmas kick-about, and they were really excited about it. Some historian believe that this may have contributed to them losing the war. They took the vodka jelly recipe back to their trenches after the game had finished, and rather than having vodka jelly parties twice weekly, as the British did, they had no particular routine for them (unusually for them). This meant that on any given day, over half of the Germans in the trenches could be blind drunk on vodka jelly shots.
A drunken mess of an army
Also, the Germans didn’t realise what the British did, which is that vodka jelly is something of a slow-burner in drinking terms. Because the vodka is suspended in jelly, it takes longer to affect you than vodka in its neat form. Therefore you can end up drinking far more than you realise, and suddenly finding yourself very drunk some time later. This led to the Germans slipping over in the mud, having punch-ups in the trenches, and getting all maudlin about their wives and girlfriends. Facing such a drunken mess of an army, the British fairly easily won the war in 1918, just a year or so after the famous football match. So the next time you’re preparing your lime vodka jelly mix, just remember – it’s the drink that won the war.