Book: The Ideal Bartender by Tom Bullock

THE IDEAL BARTENDER

BY – Tom Bullock

PUBLISHER – First published by Buxton & Skinner Printing and Stationary Co., St. Louis; This facsimile edition published by Cocktail Kingdom., Inc.

YEAR – Originally 1917; This edition 2015

I have avoided cocktails. They intrigue me greatly, from the standpoints of taste and creativity. But I fear what going down the cocktail rabbit hole would do to my bank account! My kitchen’s cramped pantry already houses roughly 150 bottles of whiskey on any given day, arranged in tight orderly lines like a corps de ballet. A bottle-kill inevitably signals a fresh uncorking. Emptied bottles are ushered away and promptly replaced by new hopefuls waiting in the wings for their moment.

Were I to add to this ensemble a corps de bottlé of vermouth, gin, vodka, bitters, syrup, amaro, mezcal, tequila, brandy, all in variation, not to mention a steady supply of fresh lemons, limes, oranges, apples, cherries, assorted other seasonal fruit and herbal garnishes, not to further mention fresh ice in cubes of various dimensions and the occasional sphere, and I haven’t even got into all the shiny metal equipment—jiggers, special spoons and knives, shakers, strainers… Well, it’s quite a lot.

Nevertheless, when I heard about Tom Bullock’s 1917 book, The Ideal Bartender, courtesy of a post about it by a fellow member of my local Facebook whiskey group, I could not not pick up a copy.

I certainly enjoy flipping through my copy of Meehan’s Bartender Manual (Ten Speed Press, New York, 2017). Jim Meehan’s attractively letter-pressed, green-covered magnum opus abounds with intimidatingly gorgeous photographs of his colleagues and cocktails. I appreciate the presentation. But the lush photos and thorough commentary, spread over nearly 500 pages, push the practical outcome of the very clearly rendered recipes seemingly out of reach.

Gary Regan’s stalwart The Joy of Mixology (Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York, 2003/2018) presents a heftier, art deco variation on Bullock’s slim red hardback volume. Like Meehan’s, Regan’s commentary is extensive, with margin-to-margin text unbroken by any other visual stimuli. I tend to slip into an academic stupor upon merely cracking the book.

So these incredibly well researched tomes nevertheless present a challenge to my getting my cocktail momentum going.

Tom Bullock’s concise offering, appearing more like a volume of poems than a manual of any expectation of that term, promises something at once approachable and yet intriguingly out of reach: a straightforward account but from the distant past, offering clear information, a certain mystery in its bygone terminology, and a fascinating window into American history.

Tom Bullock was the first African American to publish a cocktail book. He was a known personality of his time. Yet the timing of his book’s publication could not have been worse for its future—three years later, Prohibition would send bartenders into hiding. Lucky for us the contemporary mixology community is rife with obsessives who keep track of obscure figures from cocktail history and their recipes.

The good people at Cocktail Kingdom, Inc., saw to it to honor Bullock’s uncommon book with their faithful recreation of it, in hardback no less, and only minimal additions. As prologue to an exact reproduction of Bullock’s book from its first page to last, there is a new introduction by the renowned global rum ambassador, Ian Burrell.

After a brief but elegant dedication, Bullock includes a reprint of a 1913 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article on the libel suit brought by Theodore Roosevelt against George Newett, editor of a small newspaper called Iron Ore. The newspaper had accused the former president of a tendency toward drunkenness. In his testimony, as evidence of his sobriety Roosevelt claimed to have taken only a small sip from a Bullock-minted Mint Julep, to which the St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist observed: “Who was ever known to drink just a part of one of Tom’s? …There is no greater mixologist of any race.”

The newspaper account is followed by a one-page introduction by George Herbert Walker, the investment banking tycoon and antecedent of presidents Bush Senior and Junior. In his brief but gracious salute, Walker acknowledges Bullock’s widespread renown, deeming his cocktail recipes “the best to be had.”

The recipes are listed alphabetically, each looking not unlike a short E.E. Cummings poem. They call for largely familiar ingredients—Angostura Bitters, Bacardi Rum, Old Tom Gin. Less immediately recognizable mixers also appear—Batavia Arrack, Cusenier Grenadine, Sweet Catawba. Bullock assumes the reader’s understanding of common measurements like 2 dashes, 1 jigger, and 1/2 pony. (🐴?) It is this blend of the familiar and the not as much that together provide both access and mystery, prompting a need for further effort on the part of those of us not fully schooled in the etymology of mixology.

Rather than posing a frustration, this assumption of understanding on Bullock’s part strikes a solid chord of confidence and curiosity. Offering neither pomp nor circumstance, Bullock lays out the key ingredients and the most basic prompt toward assembling them. There is exactitude and room for nuance.

Also, the range of unusual and specific cocktails, never seen by me on any contemporary cocktail menu, are delightfully intriguing. The “Bishop a la Prusse,” for example, commands a full paragraph rather than the usual vertical list of calculated ingredients. It is so complex as to involve an oven, six large oranges, and twenty-four hours of preparation. That’s what I’m talkin’ about! Want to impress your party guests? Look no further than the Bishop a la Prusse.

Nutmeg makes a frequent appearance. Lots of Burnett’s Old Tom Gin. California Sherry versus unspecified sherry. Old bourbon versus bourbon without concern for age. At once ascetic and detailed, Bullock’s recipes compel contemplation with their mix of the unassuming and the unexpected. Bullock offers no philosophical explanation, no attempt at allure with romantic accounts of cocktails or the environs where they are to be served. Bullock’s is a hospitality expert’s account—discreet, practical, efficient, elegant, trustworthy. An ideal bartender indeed.

It is no small matter that Bullock is the first African American to publish such a volume. In reprinting the book in such careful detail, Cocktail Kingdom has provided us with an historical artifact. In its colloquial terminology, attentive brevity, and tasteful design, The Ideal Bartender reflects a time and place distant from us and yet, sociopolitically, very near. How many early 20th Century publications opened with a dignified portrait of their African American author? There are comparatively many more such portraits in books today, yet the mixology world remains largely White. Bullock earned his publication, in a time when that could be no simple achievement for an African American. It certainly speaks volumes that a White-run newspaper held up the reputation of his cocktails as evidence against Theodore Roosevelt. And there’s the endorsement of G.H. Walker, a major figure in the history of White American patriarchal capitalism.

Despite his success, one can guess Bullock’s life was not free from racial injustice. He was serving White clientele in wealthy southern and mid-western American country clubs, after all. Born in Louisville, KY, in 1872, his father was a former slave who fought for the Union Army in the Civil War. When Bullock came of age he entered the hospitality trades via Louisville’s elite Pendennis Club, working his way up from bell boy to bartender. After that Bullock mixed drinks in a railway bar (a high-class appointment in that time) and eventually the St. Louis Country Club, where he would meet G.H. Walker. The 1913 Roosevelt libel trial turned out well for Bullock, with that St. Louis Post-Dispatch article popularizing his name nationally. After his book was published in 1917, Prohibition cut Bullock’s further potential success short.

But nearly one hundred years later, in 2013, D’USSÉ Cognac established the Tom Bullock Award for Distinguished Service. And in 2017, in celebration of the centennial of Bullock’s book, a cocktail bar and restaurant in St. Louis called Planter’s House named one of its rooms after him. Also in 2017, Copper & Kings Distillery established The Ideal Bartender School, a rigorous hospitality education program with a focus on mixology. And in 2019, a mural dedicated to Bullock was installed outside the Louisville Visitor Center, near the site of the original Pendennis Club.

Cocktails may seem a trivial matter in the grand scheme of American history’s many matters. They are not a main event. They open a party or accompany a conversation. They salute major business and political decisions. They celebrate everything from the banal passing of yet another work week to significant cultural occasions. Cocktails are a quintessential American creation—equal parts entertainment value, studied craftsmanship, indulgent hedonism, and high art. Tom Bullock’s contribution to this American craft / art / product / indulgence is rightly recognized. The faithful Cocktail Kingdom recreation of his subtly groundbreaking 1917 publication is a welcome piece of history, now made forever present.

Cheers!

Resources

The Cunningest Compounders of Beverages: The Hidden History of African Americans Behind the Bar – well researched article by David Wondrich, published by The Bitter Southerner.

The Ideal Bartender – interactive digital copy published online by EUVS Vintage Cocktail Books. This copy includes added handwritten notes by its original owner.

The Life and Legacy of Tom Bullock – detailed article by Michael Jones, published on the Go To Louisville website.

Roosevelt v. Newett: The Libel Trial of 1913 — an account of the libel case, written by James McCommons and published in Upper Country: A Journal of the Lake Superior Region: Vol. 6 , Article 2.

Tom Bullock and the Forgotten Legacy of African American Bartenders – Punch Drink article by Chantal Martineau, covering other notable African American mixologists in addition to Bullock.

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