Learn the history of Louisville's Ideal Bartender, Tom Bullock
Greg Boehm owns the world’s largest collection of cocktail books – 3,800 and counting. The books are part of the research library for Boehm’s company, Cocktail Kingdom, which manufactures professional barware and reprints vintage bar literature. Several years ago, a woman contacted Boehm looking to sell a cocktail book he didn’t own – a first edition of “The Ideal Bartender” by Thomas Bullock. The 1917 book was part of an estate sale and Boehm jumped at the opportunity to acquire a rare artifact of cocktail history: Bullock was the first African American to publish a cocktail book, and his was one of the last drink collections released before the United States banned alcohol sales during Prohibition (1920 to 1933).
“In the cocktail bar industry, unfortunately, the African American community is not very well represented at all. It is just not a diverse group, so anything that lends diversity to bartending is a good thing,” Boehm explained. “In addition, ‘The Ideal Bartender’ is a little snapshot of what people were drinking pre-Prohibition, and unlike a lot of cocktail books, none of these recipes were cribbed from anyone else. This is a completely unique cocktail book.”
Boehm was so excited by antiquated recipes like the Onion Cocktail (similar to a Gibson, but with Old Tom instead of London Dry) and the Fedora (Curacos, a syrup made of orange peels; brandy, rum, and whiskey) that Cocktail Kingdom published an exact facsimile of Bullock’s book in 2015. But one of the curious aspects of “The Ideal Bartender” is the lack of personal information about the author. With the except of a small quote from Bullock, the recipes are accompanied only by a testimonial from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and an introduction by George Herbert Walker, the grandfather and great-grandfather of the 41st and 43rd U.S. presidents.
Both Walker and the newspaper praise Bullock’s talents as a bartender but they tell us nothing about the man. The best way for a modern cocktail enthusiast to appreciate Bullock and his career is to consider them in the context of the time in which he lived. Bullock was born in Louisville, Kentucky in October 18, 1872, less than a decade after the Civil War. His father, also named Thomas Bullock, was a former slave who fought for the Union Army and worked as a furniture mover after the war. The 1880 Census shows the older Bullock living with his wife, Jennie, and their three children – Tom, 7; Lena, 6; and Clarence, 1.
Louisville was a Union stronghold during the war, but the city became a magnet for ex-Confederates after the fighting ceased. The Louisville & Nashville Railroad controlled the only working tracks to the Deep South, so the River City became a major center of trade. By 1870, the city’s population had increased more than 48 percent to 100,000 people.
The former rebels soon took over Louisville’s culture. Historian George C. Wright wrote, “It seems that a part of the ‘rite of passage’ into the business world of the city was to have been an officer of the Confederacy. Nearly all of Louisville’s journalists, lawyers, realtors, and merchants were former rebels.”
One of the Southern traditions that blossomed in Louisville after the Civil War was the use of African American bartenders. African Americans were usually barred from these positions in Northern-leaning cities expect for places that catered to black patrons. Because of the potential earnings for tips and the opportunity to rub shoulders with the country’s elite, tending bar in posh places was considered a desirable job pre-Prohibition and limited to white men in most major cities. In fact, the Cincinnati’s Atlas Hotel was the subject of a city-wide boycott in 1893 after the owner hired an African American bartender named Louis Deal.
“In the North, black bartenders were seen as competition and shut out entirely. In Southern-leaning cities like Louisville and St. Louis, the situation was different. They had a history of using African Americans in all types of serving positions,” said cocktail historian David Wondrich, who recently wrote an article about Bullock and other black bartenders for the Bitter Southerner.
In the era before Prohibition, tending the bar was a very personal job. In the better establishments bartenders were expected to be worldly, to keep up on the news, and be able to carry on good conversation. This allowed some black bartenders to develop close relationships with their regular customers. Dick Francis was such a favorite of Washington politicians that he ran the Senate’s bar in Henry Clay’s day and John Dabney was so good at mixing Mint Juleps in Richmond that he made enough money to purchase his and his wife’s freedom.
Bullock learned his bartending skills at the Pendennis Club, Louisville’s elite private club, where he started out working as a bellboy. The Pendennis Club was founded in 1881. The club did not move to its current home at Second and Muhammad Ali until 1928. When Bullock worked there, it was located in a downtown mansion formerly owned by William Burke Belknap, founder of the Belknap Hardware and Manufacturing Company. President Chester A. Arthur dined there in 1883 when he came to Louisville for the Southern Exposition.
Not much is known about Bullock’s time at the Pendennis Club. The organization does not keep archives from that period. However, this was the club’s heyday when Henry Bain, creator of the eponymous sauce, served as head waiter.
One of the legends that attached itself to Bullock’s time at the Pendennis Club has to do with the creation of the Old Fashioned. It has been long rumored that the drink was invented by club member James E. Pepper and Bullock might have played a part in the creation. However, both Boehm and Wondrich said the Old Fashioned recipe pre-dates the Pendennis Club. If anything, they say Louisville can claim to have popularized the drink. It does show up in “The Ideal Bartender” as simply “Old Fashion Cocktail.”
There is a curious news item in the February 26, 1904 Courier-Journal that might explain why Bullock left the Pendennis Club. The headline read, “Pendennis Club Sued.” The story relates that “Clarence Bullock, a Negro waiter, sued the club for $5,000 damages” after his knee was cut by glass while opening a bottle of club soda for a club member. For whatever reason, Bullock left the Pendennis Club to work at a competing private club, the Kenton Club; a short-lived rival started in 1885 by businessmen denied membership to the Pendennis.
Bullock left Louisville to work in a railroad car bar. For a while he was living in Cincinnati with his brother Clarence and working on the rails. According to the introduction to his book, he also spent some time working in Chicago. But eventually he settled in St. Louis, where he lived with his widowed mother and tended bar at the exclusive St. Louis Country Club.
The St. Louis Country Club has a golf course designed by Charles B. Macdonald, who is considered the father of American golf. Among Bullock’s regular patrons was Walker, who besides siring presidents was a wealthy banker and president of the U.S. Golf Association. The Walker Cup, a competition between American and British golfers, is named for him. In his introduction to “The Ideal Bartender” Walker wrote of Bullock, “For the past quarter of a century he has refreshed and delighted the members and their friends of the Pendennis Club of Louisville and the St. Louis Country Club of St. Louis. In all of that time, I doubt if he has erred in even one of his concoctions.”
“The Ideal Bartender” itself was born out of controversy. During the 1912 election there were persistent rumors that Theodore Roosevelt was a secret drunk. After hearing a Roosevelt speech in Marquette, Iron Ore editor George Newitt penned an article that declared, “Roosevelt lies, and curses in a most disgusting way, he gets drunk too, and that not infrequently, and all of his intimates know about it.”
Roosevelt sued for libel. During the testimony for the suit the former president conceded that in the years since he had left the White House he drank two Mint Juleps. One occasion was at the St. Louis Country Club, and he claimed to have only taken a couple of sips. This led to a playful editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 28, 1913. The writer contends that Bullock’s drinks are so good Roosevelt couldn’t be telling the truth: “Who was ever known to drink just a part of Tom’s? Tom, than whom there is no greater mixologist of any race, was taught the art of the julep by no less than Marse Lilburn G. McNair, the father of the julep.”
Marse McNair refers to the grandson of Alexander McNair, the first governor of Missouri. Regardless of how much of the julep he drank, Roosevelt won his libel suit and all the attention translated to national fame for Bullock. With the help of patrons like Walker and August Busch Sr., CEO of Anheuser-Busch, he was able to publish his recipe book.
Bullock became particularly famous for his Mint Juleps. “The Ideal Bartender” contains two recipes – Kentucky Style and St. Louis Style. The former is the familiar Mint Julep he probably mastered at the Pendennis Club. The other recipe includes gin, lemon and lime juice, and Grenadine, a non-alcoholic bar syrup. In a nod to Busch, “The Ideal Bartender” also includes a drink called Golfer’s Delight that used Bevo, a non-alcoholic beer that Anheuser-Busch developed in anticipation of Prohibition.
Bullock was at the height of his popularity in 1917. Then America did the unthinkable and outlawed alcohol. Missouri was actually one of the last states to adopt Prohibition. It was rejected in the 1910, 1912, and 1918 elections. However in 1919, the Missouri General Assembly accepted prohibition by ratifying the 18th Amendment. Thereafter, Bullock is listed in the St. Louis City Directory as working a laborer or a butler, but most cocktail writers believe he continued to serve alcohol. He remained employed for several years by the St. Louis Country Club but they were not specific about his duties.
Bullock mysteriously disappears from the public record after 1927. It is generally accepted that he didn’t die until 1964, but almost nothing is known about the years in between. Gradually both he and his book were forgotten by the cocktail community. Bullock’s legacy was rescued in the early 2000s when author Dianna Seay, using the pen name D.J. Frienz, published two books based on “The Ideal Bartender” – “173 Pre-Prohibition Cocktails: Potations So Good They Scandalized A President” and “Classic Cocktails: Over 170 Drinks from Yesteryear that You Can Enjoy Today.” Since then Bullock has been the subject of articles by Wondrich and Rafia Zafar, a noted professor of African American Studies. In “Recipes for Respect: Black Hospitality Entrepreneurs Before World War I,” Zafar points to people like Bullock and Rufus Estes, author of 1911 cookbook “Good Things to Eat,” as the beginning of the black middle class in America.
“The Ideal Bartender” celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017, and Bullock seems to be as hot as ever. Planter’s House, a cocktail bar and restaurant in St. Louis, named a Bullock Room in his honor. And in 2013, D’USSÉ Cognac established the Tom Bullock Award for Distinguished Service in Washington, D.C. Darryl Bullock, Thomas’ grandnephew, was on hand for the ceremony. He admitted to not knowing much about his famous relative, but he said, “My uncle must have been very good at what he did for so many people to know his name. And that makes me proud.”
Epilogue: In 2017, Louisville brandy distillery Copper & Kings, paid tribute to Bullock and by instituting "The Ideal Bartender School" which would aims to provide a rigorous, disciplined, education designed for students to learn the essentials of hospitality in a bar setting with a focus on spirits education, cocktail creation. In 2019, a mural dedicated to Tom Bullock was installed on the side of a prominent Urban Bourbon Trail restaurant, just down the street from the site of the original Pendennis Club. Artist and Louisville native Kacy Jackson designed the mural which depicts Bullock serving up an Old Fashioned cocktail, which is said to have been invented in Louisville. Currently, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience highlights Bullock through the Ideal Bartender Experience, an hour-long Bourbon tasting located in the distillery's basement speakeasy featuring an actor portraying the Louisville native.
This piece was researched and written by Michael Jones.