Punch poster

Guest chefs at restaurants and tap takeovers at breweries are common now, but guest bartenders aren’t yet a regular sight in Louisville’s watering holes.

Especially when those bartenders come from London.

England, not Kentucky.

That’ll happen Thursday, May 26, when several mixologists from the Punch Room, a cocktail bar in England’s most famous city, conclude their U.S. tour at Meta in Louisville after visits to New York and Chicago. Meta owner Jeremy Johnson called it a significant event for the city’s cocktail reputation.

“Punch is one of the most fantastic, well-regarded and renowned bars in the world,” Johnson said. “So it’s a big honor for the city that they’re coming here after going to New York and Chicago. It’s on my top 10 list of bars to visit before I die.”

According to the website of the London Edition Hotel, where the Punch Room is located, the bar is “a fumed-oak paneled den inspired by the comfort of manor house libraries and nineteenth-century London’s private clubs, yet a modern reincarnation. As the name suggests, the craft cocktail focus is the Punch Bowl. For a single person or a group punch bowl, guests can order one of ten carefully crafted specialty punches including the gin infused Edition Punch with jasmine tea and oak moss.”

Jeremy Johnson, owner of Meta. | Photo courtesy of Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson, owner of Meta | Courtesy of Jeremy Johnson

Though I can’t say it had me at “fumed oak,” for I don’t know what that is, I got interested at punches, which I really enjoy and which are making a comeback in cocktail circles. (There may be others in Louisville serving punches by the bowl, but to my knowledge, La Chasse and El Camino are the only two.)

Brown-Forman sponsored the Punch team’s trip, and though it’s based conveniently here, Johnson doubts the Louisville-based spirits company would spend the money to bring them to the city were Louisville’s cocktail scene not significant.

“It really is a special event not just for Meta as a cocktail bar, but for our city and its bartending community,” he said. “I don’t think this would happen unless we were in New York or Chicago.”

Johnson said Punch Room bartenders are known for “being utterly meticulous” in their ingredient preparation and cocktail making. That Meta is known for its more rebellious style “should make it really cool to work together with them. I’m arranging it so that everyone (from Meta) works a mini-shift with them behind the bar. That way we all can say we did that.”

Preferring to let guests be surprised, Johnson didn’t share what Punch’s bartenders will be shaking. Yet he did let on that they’ll be using an obscure ingredient called ambergris (pronounced “amber-gree”), which is Latin for a digestive lubricant found in whale intestines. According to Wikipedia, it’s believed the substance helps food — as in bony sea creatures swallowed whole — slide more easily through a whale’s pipes.

Hmm.

Better yet, freshly harvested ambergris “has a marine, fecal odor that becomes a sweet, earthy scent commonly likened to the fragrance of rubbing alcohol without the vaporous chemical astringency.”

Yum!

Said no one.

What purpose this whale-gut grease will serve in a cocktail remains a mystery even to Johnson, who said despite the unknown, he trusts the drink-makers’ implicitly.

“It’s what you’ll be drinking that night,” he promised me.

OK, then.

The evening’s cocktail menu will contain a list of six drinks: three made by Punch, three by Meta. (Perhaps we’ll recognize the ambergris drink on the list as Moby Dick, The Melville or, perhaps, as Ahab’s Revenge. Surely it’ll be shaken to foamy whiteness.)

There’s no charge for the event other than the cost of cocktails. The benefit, Johnson said, is “to get to see these guys work. It’s like a little bit of London coming to Louisville.” He encouraged guests to come chat with the bartenders as well.

Brown-Forman is planning to “raffle off some cool stuff,” also, he said, but that as much as anything, he wants locals to come out in big numbers to show just how much we appreciate really good cocktails and people who’d travel so far to make them for us.

“If this night goes really well, more bartenders are going to want to come here,” he said. “I think it’s so crucial to support this as a community to help put Louisville in same category in people’s minds as New York and Chicago.

“We’re uniquely positioned to be a world leader in this stuff since all these distilleries are at our doorstep. We can be cocktail innovators as much as New York and Chicago, especially when we’ve got access to the people making some of the best spirits in the world. Why not use that access?”

Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.