The Ideal Bartender, a 1917 classic by Tom Bullock is now an immersive experience in Louisville

Evan Williams, Kentucky’s first distillery, is hosting “The Ideal Bartender Experience” as part of Louisville’s celebration of African American history. The distillery was founded by Evan Williams in 1783, but the experience takes visitors no further back then to the final days of Prohibition and into a secret speakeasy at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, a multi-million dollar artisanal distillery, immersive tourism destination and retail location on Louisville’s Whiskey Row.

The Ideal Bartender Experience, separate from the other tours available at Evan Williams, introduces guests to Tom Bullock, the first Black American to write and publish a cocktail book. Written in 1917, “The Ideal Bartender” was almost lost to history despite Bullock’s fame at the time.

Greg Boehm, owner of the New York-based company, Cocktail Kingdom, has close to 4000 books about cocktails in what is said to be the largest collection in the world. Consider the collection research as Cocktail Kingdom manufactures professional barware, reprints vintage bar literature, and a full spectrum of professional and custom barware, artisan bitters and syrups.

According to Go to Louisville, several years ago Boehm was contacted by a woman wanting to sell a first edition of The Ideal Bartender. It was the one book Boehm was missing and so he jumped at the chance to own an original copy.

“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.”

Bullock, a stately looking man, was known to make some powerful — and according to article in The New York Times — addictive cocktails. He was also reputed to be a great conversationalist and to have a wide range of knowledge on current events–which was expected of a bartender working in rarified places.

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Though Bullock was known to the wealthy elite who sipped his cocktails he was relatively unknown until former President Theodore Roosevelt filed a libel suit in 1913 against a newspaper claiming he was not only a liar but also frequently drunk. In his testimony, Roosevelt said that one of the few drinks he’d ever had — and that didn’t happen until he had left the White House — was a mint julep mixed for him by Bullock at the St. Louis Country Club. And, Roosevelt told the court, he took only a sip or two.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called this out as a lie, printing an editorial opining, “Who was ever known to drink just a part of one of Tom’s juleps? 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. Are the Colonel’s powers of restraint altogether transcendent?”

Marse, for those who don’t know their Missouri or mint julep history, was the grandson of Alexander McNair, the first governor of the state.

Whether he drank more than half of the mint julep or not, Roosevelt won his suit, and Bullock became famous for his bartending skills. Patrons who loved his cocktails included George Herbert Walker — you know the last name, as he was the grandfather and great-grandfather of our 41st and 43rd U.S. presidents, and August Busch Sr., CEO of Anheuser-Busch, who each helped get the book published.

 “I have known the author for many years, and it is a privilege to be permitted to testify to his qualifications…” In all that time I doubt that he has erred in event one of his concoctions,” wrote Bush in the intro to Bullock’s book.

Bullock was quite creative when it came to drinks, creating a version of an Old Fashioned easily transported in a flask for those attending the matches at the St. Louis Polo Club.

The 45-minute tour at The Ideal Bartender Experience includes a taste of three premium whiskeys as well as a mint julep made from one of Bullock’s recipes, is one of several fascinating immersive experiences taking place in Louisville.

 Tom Bullock’s Old Fashioned for the Polo Field

         Fill one eight ounce flask with 100 proof bourbon near to the top. Shove four raw sugar cubes or pour four raw sugar packets into the mouth of your flask, dash eight times with Angostura. Shake the flask vigorously. Pour the contents over the largest ice cubes you can find.

Bizzy Izzy

Oloroso sherry has been used in cocktails since before Prohibition, its sweetness and body a great match for aged spirits like bourbon. Tom Bullock uses both in the Bizzy Izzy, a cocktail from the classic 1917 book The Ideal Bartender.  

1 cocktail

  • 1 1/4 ounces oloroso sherry, such as Bodega Grant “La Garrocha” or Lustau
  • 1 ounce 100-proof bourbon, such as Old Forester Signature
  • 1/2 ounce Demerara Syrup (2 parts raw demerara sugar to 1 part hot water, dissolved)
  • 1/2 ounce fresh pineapple juice
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 3 ounces soda water
  • Maraschino cherry and pineapple frond (optional), for garnish

Combine sherry, bourbon, syrup, pineapple, and lemon juice in a shaker. Shake vigorously to combine, and then strain into a Collins glass filled with ice cubes. Top with soda water, and garnish with cherry and pineapple frond, if using.

Tom Bullock’s Mint Julep

Use a large silver mug.

  • Dissolve one lump of sugar in 1/2 pony of water.
  • Fill mug with ice.
  • Add 2 jiggers of Bourbon whiskey

Stir well. Add 1 bouquet of mint and serve. Be careful not to bruise the mint.

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