Jeremy Johnson of Meta. | Photo by Steve Coomes.
Jeremy Johnson of Meta. | Photo by Steve Coomes.

I had to go, and I had to know.

To Meta to taste a Pappy Van Winkle Jell-O shot last Friday and learn how this brilliant and borderline scandalous — for Bourbon Country anyway — promotion turned out for Jeremy Johnson, co-owner of the craft cocktail bar.

Johnson grabbed headlines on Thursday after informing Insider Louisville he was taking a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 15-year-old bourbon and a bottle of 12-year-old and turning those sought-after sippers into Jell-O shots.

Technically, he took the bourbon, blended it with bitters, muddled cherry, orange and syrup for a giant old fashioned cocktail, thickened it with gelatin and poured the blend into 80 individual cups, each containing a brandied cherry.

I’m here to say it was really tasty — best such shot I’ve ever had. But at $10 apiece, I stuck with one.

“We sold 80 last night,” Johnson said. On the Friday night I was there, he sold 70 more.

So check out the math: Even if he paid the common retail price of around $200 for a bottle of “Pappy 15” — and he didn’t, because he buys his booze at wholesale and couldn’t share his price with me — he made a gross profit of nearly $600 minus the negligible costs of gelatin, bitters and fruit.

“We didn’t do too badly there,” he added.

Profit is one thing, but PR is another, and Johnson got more than he ever expected. The Insider Louisville story was picked up by major news outlets, some of which called Johnson for follow-up quotes.

“I thought we’d get a little press, but it’s gotten insane,” Johnson said. “The Insider story breaks, and then the next thing I know I’m getting calls from ABC News and NBC. I thought this would turn into something interesting, but I had no idea.”

Fodor's likes Louisville's Meta Bar a lot.

“Interesting” is putting it mildly. For the most part, Johnson said the Pappy shots were praised by people who “got what we were doing, tasted them and really liked them.” But some regarded using such rare whiskey as blasphemy and were downright vicious in their commentary.

Johnson received an email death threat (Hey, smart guy, you can trace those things) and another threat to burn the bar down. A thread on Fark.com contains a litany of splenetic remarks toward Johnson, his bar and the commonwealth — all because he turned bourbon into a Jell-O shot.

“I’m not surprised how supportive people were, but I’m a little surprised by how many were really offended,” Johnson said.

The affronted even included other Louisville restaurant operators who didn’t get any Pappy at all. Johnson chose not to name those operators, but he was frank in his dismissal of such complaints.

“I’m categorically not sorry at all for doing this,” he said. “We jump through the same hoops as everyone to get our Pappy. I have no idea why they didn’t get theirs.”

Johnson said he even got calls from several distilleries supporting his decision to add a bit of whimsy to the whiskey.

“They said I can buy as much of their whiskey as I wanted and that they didn’t care what I did with it because it’s my bourbon at that point,” he said. “People are missing one big point: We took a bottle of Pappy and (150) people got to try it rather than two or three. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Johnson said he understands that the average bourbon consumer doesn’t know the difficulties of securing Pappy at wholesale. Bars, restaurants and liquor stores are told that once each year’s allotment is bottled and shipped out, it’s gone until next year. Yet he said that’s rarely the case.

“You see a bar open up in the middle of summer and they have some bottles of Pappy on the shelf, and you’re like, ‘Where did that come from?’” Johnson said. “I don’t want to call anyone out on unfair practices, but, really.

“I know how it goes. I worked for a distributor and everyone wants the sought-after stuff and they try to keep it fair.”

But since it’s not always fair, he said, “I can’t help but poke a little fun at it now that I’m on the other end.”

Overall, Johnson thinks the whole buy-at-all-costs bourbon craze is way out of hand, and he recalled a story of a Napa Valley winemaker who treated several peers to a dinner at which he served them popsicles made from Château d’Yquem, a pricey French wine known for its complexity and sweetness.

“They freaked out, they couldn’t believe he did that,” Johnson said. “He told them that at the end of the day, it’s just grape juice, and if they started believing their own hype, then they’re really screwed.”

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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.