Jeremy Johnson, the owner of Louisville bar Meta, has a reputation as a quirky guy. The bar itself stands out in the city, notable for its list of cocktails that focus as much on rum as on Kentucky bourbon. But it’s Louisville, and bourbon still reigns supreme. In 2014, Johnson found out just how supreme, after he decided to have a little fun with his allocation of Pappy Van Winkle, going full frat party by adding gelatin to a big batch of Old-Fashioneds made with the 15-year expression.What’s become known as “The Pappy Jell-O Shot Incident” got a lot of press attention itself. Eater’s national site picked it up, cheekily describing the shots as sacrilegious in the headline, and even Today got in on the action. Why was it such a big deal? Pappy’s a cult brand that can go for absurd prices; the retail price on bottles, which are made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, currently start at $100 for the 15-year, $170 for the 20-year, and $270 for the 23-year. But those numbers go way, way up on the secondary market: A search on Drizly.com would have me spending $1,499.99 for a bottle near me. And Pappy’s distributor, Republic National, who didn’t return requests for comment, is said to keep a tight rein on who gets to have the spirit in stock in the first place. 2014 was Meta’s second year in business and the first during which it was deemed worthy of some Pappy bottles, and he made the most of it with the shots, which allowed for $10 tastes when pours can easily cost a curious consumer $30 (or way more at a bar taking advantage of the scarcity). Johnson didn’t expect to see any repercussions from his playful jab at the bourbon’s highly esteemed reputation or his more egalitarian approach to getting it down gullets, but in the years since, he’s seen his allocation dwindle, until this year, when Meta got zero bottles. Not a single one.
Sazerac, the brand’s owner, says allocations are all the distributor’s doing. “I didn’t hear anything directly from Sazerac, but I know I pissed them off,” Johnson said. “I knew this was going to be controversial when I did it. I didn’t know we would get all the press we did—I thought maybe someone local would write about it,” Johnson continued. Meta had paid for the bourbon, though, so as far as Johnson was concerned, it shouldn’t make a difference what he did with it. he could pour it down the toilet.
WATCH: How-To: Make Aperol Jell-O Shots
Which, for the record, was not something this lifetime-Pappy-lover was planning on doing. The Kentucky native’s relationship with the brand goes way back to when he started in the hospitality industry 16 years ago. “I remember seeing it on the back bar and thinking, I don’t know what it is, but it looks really cool,” he told me over the phone. “It just looked special. It was definitely different. You could get it. They would run out after a while, but you could get it.”
For Alabama-based cocktail writer and bartender Clair McLafferty, the moment she heard about the Jell-O shot, she thought it was “genius.” “Everyone in my local bourbon clubs and grey market sales groups was talking about it, and by what I understood, pretty much everyone local to Louisville was headed to Meta,” she told me over email. “It was designed to get new guests in the door, and to keep them with the selection of other bourbons, rums, and cocktails.”
“[Consumers are beginning to realize that, at its core, [whiskey is] a humble product made from simple ingredients,” Reid Mitenbuler, who wrote Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey, said. “Treating bourbon the same way you'd treat a fancy watch or a luxury car is kind of silly. Some bourbons are better than others, and worth paying a little extra for, but let's not lose our minds and go crazy here. Right now, Pappy falls into the ‘losing our minds and going crazy here’ category. Maybe someday everyone will come back to earth.”
Johnson can’t deny the great economic impact people losing their minds over bourbon has had on the state of Kentucky, but he also remembers when it was just something to sip on your porch with neighbors, not a fetishized commodity too holy to enjoy. If one day the Pappy market returns to its early ’00s state, maybe Meta can be allowed some bottles again. “This is bourbon, people,” he said, with a tinge of exasperation. “It’s supposed to be fun, man.”