The beauty of the spirits and cocktails world is not only the myriad of flavors that have been combined to make for some of the classic drinks we enjoy in the modern era but also the history behind these storied beverages. What has not been examined in great enough detail is the contributions Black Americans have contributed to the craft, and Tom Bullock stands far and above several other Black barkeeps due to his pioneering ways.
Spirit.Ed was designed to be more than just a place for recipes for cocktails. We also hope to educate readers on the history of these fine concoctions and how they came to be. For this piece, we’re looking at the life and legacy of St. Louis, Mo. bartender and author, Tom Bullock.
Bullock was born on October 18, 1872, in Louisville, Ky. as one of three children to his father, Thomas Bullock, a former slave who fought for the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. Very little is known about Bullock’s earlier life. But what has been depicted by the likes of cocktail historian and author David Wondrich, is that Bullock, while certainly not the first Black bartender of note, most certainly penned the first cocktail manual written by a Black person, The Ideal Bartender published in 1917, and features 173 cocktails.
Bullock poured drinks in a number of establishments, including the Pendennis Club in Louisville, the Kenton Club, and the St. Louis Country Club in Ladue, Mo. It was there that Bullock crossed paths with George Herbert Walker, the grandfather of former President George H.W. Bush and great-grandfather of former president George W. Bush. So close were the pair that Walker penned the introduction to Bullock’s book which we’ll feature in full below.
From Tom Bullock’s The Ideal Bartender:
I have known the author of “The Ideal Bartender” for many years, and it is a genuine privilege to be permitted to testify to his qualifications for such a work.
To his many friends in St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Chicago and elsewhere, my word will be superfluous, but to those who do not know him, and who are to be the gainers by following his advices, it may prove at the very beginning a stimulus to know something of his record of achievement.
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 that time I doubt if he has erred in even one of his concoctions. Thus if there is “many a slip twixt the cup and the lip” it has been none of his doing, but rather the fault of those who have appreciated his art too highly. But why go on! His work is before you. It is the best to be had. Follow on, and as you sip the nectar of his schemings tell your friends, to the end that both they and he may be benefitted.
Bullock did obtain some fame as a result of the book and it was indeed revolutionary considering a rich, southern white man gave him such a glowing endorsement and that a white publishing house put out the book. However, when prohibition began in 1920, much of the fanfare went to the wayside. Still, the 170-plus cocktails within Bullock’s manual have retained their merit among collectors and imbibers the world over. The aforementioned Wondrich has said in passing that it is possible that Bullock was the first bartender to improve upon the classic gin cocktail, the Gimlet.
Perhaps inspired by his current surroundings, many of the cocktails in Bullock’s book focus on refreshing warm-weather offerings like the Julep and other related drinks. Sadly, not much about Bullock himself is shared across the pages within the book but the manual definitely has its place among those who enjoy collecting books that celebrate mixology.
Bullock lived a long life, passing away in 1964 at the age of 92.
The good folks over at Cocktail Kingdom reprinted Bullock’s book, which can be purchased here.
The Ideal Bartender can be read courtesy of Project Gutenberg here.
Photo: Cocktail Kingdom