In the spirit of repeal day, it’s appropriate to mark the 102nd anniversary of the first publication of The Ideal Bartender, a pre-Prohibition book containing more than 150 original cocktail recipes. Tom Bullock, the writer of the monumentally significant book, was born in Louisville some time after the end of the Civil War. As the first African American to record and publish a comprehensive cocktail guide, his legacy has an international reach today.
Little is known for sure about Bullock’s life, but it is widely believed by spirit historians that he was the son of a slave and an ex-Union soldier. He began his career working at The Pendennis Club in Louisville, where he eventually began bartending by trade. Bullock would continue to tend bar in several cities, and even in a railroad club car, until finally ending up in St. Louis.
According to New York Times article detailing Bullock’s life, his cocktails attracted powerful people of the early twentieth century. One such customer was President Theodore Roosevelt, who was famously called out by the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch for claiming to take mere sips of Bullock’s renowned Mint Juleps.
Another of his frequent patron and fan at the St. Louis Country Club was George Herbert Walker, the grandfather of President George H. W. Bush. Walker volunteered to write the original foreword for The Ideal Bartender, and within it he said of Bullock, “I doubt if he has erred in even one of his concoctions.”
Though Tom Bullock was one of many esteemed African American bartenders during that era, he played a seminal role in popularizing intricate spirit mixes through the publication and distribution of his cocktail manual.
Fast forward a bit to a young bartender in Louisville receiving a copy of The Ideal Bartender as a gift from his uncle to encourage his burgeoning career in 2016. Even though he didn’t know it at the time, this gift would change the course of his future.
Dante Wheat admits that he didn’t even realize that Tom Bullock was an African American bartender until his name came up during a planning meeting at Copper & Kings American Brandy Company, where Wheat was working as a bartender and brand ambassador at the time. In the following weeks, Dante took a deep dive into the book and, in certain ways, saw himself.
Eventually, Copper & Kings shared Dante’s vision inspired by the legacy of Tom Bullock and launched The Ideal Bartender School in efforts to elevate more diverse voices in the spirits industry. This initiative was kicked off with an event in February 2017 celebrating the life and legacy of Bullock with a seminar by Louisville historian Michael Jones, music by Donna Mason and food by the current head chef at Ouita Michele’s Honeywood restaurant, Lawrence Weeks.
Copper & Kings garnered national press attention for the Ideal Bartender School. Dante took the lessons he learned from immersing himself in The Ideal Bartender, to carve his own path in Kentucky’s booming spirits industry. Since his time at Copper & Kings, Dante has been bartending and managing popular Louisville bars like Butchertown Social and Garage Bar and was the lead bar director for Michter’s on-premise distillery bar that debuted in Louisville in 2018.
Dante acknowledges that he’s probably the most prominent black male bartender in Kentucky. To him, this designation is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s afforded him a lot of opportunities but on the other hand, he’s not enthusiastic about being one of the only representatives of his community within the industry.
Recently, in addition to being featured in events for The James Beard Foundation he’s been working with The Black Bourbon Society and Kobbe to ensure that the future of the spirits industry in Kentucky continues to be a leader in disrupting stereotypes about the drinking culture in African American communities as well as in the industry at large.
At the heart of it all, Dante always goes back to the book that was gifted to him by his uncle. The Ideal Bartender by Tom Bullock is still widely renowned as the foremost authority on Pre-Prohibition cocktails which, in his mind, is still the most important lexicon in modern bartending. In a time when many spirits were made cheaply (and frankly didn’t taste great on their own) cocktails were created in order to make spirits more palatable. Tom Bullock took his knowledge of cocktails and used it to project himself beyond what society expected of him through his relationships with his customers and the importance of hospitality.
In 2019, it’s a message we could all use a refresher on and Dante Wheat is here to keep it alive.