Tom Bullock, the Ideal bartender

Tom Bullock, the Ideal bartender

If you’re like me, you’re probably scratching your head wondering how you’ll manage to find more shelf space to accommodate Cocktail Kingdom’s ongoing series of irresistibly sexy cocktail book reprints, always perfectly replicating the rare, collectible originals.

Their latest, Tom Bullock’s The Ideal Bartender, is historically important: not only was it published in 1917 in the middle of the Great War and at the height of the Temperance movement, but it was also the first bartending book written by an African-American barkeeper.


Right place at the Right Time

Tom Bullock Ideal Bartender

Tom Bullock was born in Kentucky in 1872 from a former slave girl and an ex-Union soldier, and first plied his trade in Louisville at the Pendennis Club, known to this day for their potent namesake cocktail, and for their groundless claim to the birthplace of the Old Fashioned. Bullock eventually moved to the ‘Gateway to the West’, St. Louis MO, in the early 1900’s, possibly in time for the 1904 World Fair and Olympic Games, when the Fourth City‘s population and economy was growing considerably. What we do know is that by 1913 he already had built a reputation as the celebrated bartender of the exclusive St. Louis Country Club.

The St. Louis Country Club is home of one of the first golf courses in North America, built-in 1892 by Canadian-born golf architect Charles MacDonald. The golf course and the adjacent polo grounds made it a destination for the St. Louis élite and for visitors looking to mingle with local power brokers. Bullock’s regulars were tycoons and politicians: investment banker George Herbert WalkerGeorge W. Bush‘s great-grandfather, penned the original introduction of Bullock’s book as an endorsement. In 1913, Bullock even found himself in the middle of a controversy surrounding former US President Teddy Roosevelt and Tom’s mint juleps.

Teddy Roosevelt and a six cent reward for damages

One fateful day of March 1912, former President Teddy Roosevelt dropped by at the Country Club while visiting St. Louis during the 1912 US Presidential campaign as the leader of the newly formed Progressive Party. Roosevelt, who had flown with the Wright brothers for a photo-op and given a speech earlier during the day, finally sat at Bullock’s bar for a Julep at the end of a long day. It proved to be a mistake: the Temperance Society was going strong, and even though getting caught having a drink was no big deal in St. Louis, in other parts of the country it was equal to a sex scandal — In 1912, 9 states out of 48 were dry and 31 others had dry counties, with just under 50% of the population already living under Prohibition.

Come November, Woodrow Wilson got elected. Scandal or not, the feisty Roosevelt would’ve probably not returned to the White House without the support of his former Republican associates. Nonetheless he took upon himself a few months later to sue for libel a vocal Michigan newspaper editor, George A. Newett, that accused him throughout his campaign of being a drunkard.

Fun Fact: After a week-long jury trial Mr. Newett dramatically retracted his charges, saying, “In the face of the unqualified testimony of so many distinguished men . . . I am forced to close that I was mistaken.” Roosevelt then withdrew his claim for damages, asking the court to instruct the jury that he wanted only nominal damages. The jury accepted his request and awarded him the sum of six cents. (Source: State Bar of Michigan)
Tom Bullock Ideal Bartender
One of the exhibition halls of the 1904 World Fair

The ‘part of one’ Tom Bullock julep that humbled a President

Questioned on his drinking habits during the Spring 1913 trial, Roosevelt explained he enjoyed the odd glass of wine, but only had two mint juleps since leaving the White House in 1909, including “part of one” at the Country Club. That proved to be too much to swallow for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that quipped in an editorial the following day:

“Colonel Roosevelt’s fatal admission that he drank just a part of one julep at the St Louis Country Club will come very near losing his case. Who was ever known to drink just a part of one of Tom’s? Tom than whom there is no greater mixologists of any race, color or condition of servitude, was taught the art of the julep by no less than Marse Lilburn G. McNair.

“When the Colonel says that he consumed just a part of one he doubtless means that he did not swallow the mint itself, munch the ice and devour the cup!” (Oh snap!)

Bullock didn’t show in his book what made his Juleps so epic, although he does warn against muddling or bruising the mint. He also had quite a few other neat libations up his sleeve: the Gillette (a possible precursor of the Gimlet, according to David Wondrich), the earliest recipe for the grenadine Bacardi Cocktail we could find and the Leaping Frog (also known as the Hop Toad, with apricot pálinka and lime) to name a few. There was also the Stinger (published the year before in Hugo Ensslin’s book), the G.O.P. (virgin, of course), and the Golfer’s Delight, a concoction made from Anheuser Busch’s latest Temperance-friendly non-alcoholic beer Bevo (“The All Year-Round Soft Drink!”), showing up in the book as a nod to August Busch, member of the Country Club and one of Bullock’s patrons.

Tom Bullock

The unfortunate thing about The Ideal Bartender

The Eighteenth Amendment vote took place in the Senate in December 1917, and Bullock’s craft was directly threatened. It clearly was a strong incentive for him to put down in writing what he had learned after quarter-century behind the wood, even though one more bartending manual must have been the last thing publishers needed back then. Sadly for the reader the book never really lives up to its unique premises: besides the short intro, there is practically no text other than cocktail recipes. It’s unfortunate Bullock didn’t share more about himself and his profession beyond a solid collection of cocktails and punches. Very little is known about Tom Bullock’s whereabouts after Prohibition, but it’s likely he remained employed in a different position at the Country Club; records show he was still living in St. Louis when he passed in 1964. There is no shortage of contemporary editions of The Ideal Bartender, but the quality of these generally goes from poor to terrible. At last Cocktail Kingdom’s beautiful hardcover reprint, with a foreword by British rum authority Ian Burrell, finally gives Bullock’s work the respect it deserved.

He had a dream…

Here’s a Tom Bullock oldie, so tasty you won’t be able to pretend you only had ‘part of one

Dream, by Tom Bullock
1½ oz Old tom gin
2 oz cream
1 egg white
¼ oz lemon juice
¼ oz rich simple syrup (2:1 sugar to water)

Dry-shake, then shake with ice and fine strain into a tall, thin glass. Pour ¼ oz Crème de Menthe over and serve.

How about a quick variation

Tom Bullock El Sueno

El Sueño, by justcocktails
2 oz tequila blanco
2 oz cream
1 egg white
¼ oz lemon juice
¼ oz rich simple syrup (2:1 sugar to water)

Dry-shake, then shake with ice and fine strain into a tall, thin glass. Pour in ¼ oz Fernet Vallet and serve.

Tom Bullock Ideal Bartender

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