There are invitations, and then there are invitations! When Jim Meehan of New York’s famous PDT bar, asked me if I might consider being involved in an event at Tales of the Cocktail this year, of course it got my attention. When he explained the event and listed the people involved in the project, it became the sort of invitation you simply can’t say no to. A group of bar luminaries coming together to honour the work of a bartending legend, in a unique and compelling way is hard to resist. Make the setting for this event in New Orleans on the Mississippi river, and get four fantastic brands involved and there was no way I could say no!
Colin Asare-Appiah, decided that it was about time someone paid homage to Tom Bullock, the first African American to release a cocktail book, back in 1917. If you don’t recognise the name, there’s more information below about why he remains an important historical figure in the world of bartending. Anyway, while he seldom gets the spotlight, making way instead for the likes of Jerry Thomas, Harry Craddock and Harry Johnson, his book, The Ideal Bartender, has done more to record the history of pre-prohibition cocktails than any other I can think of. So the idea of building an event around this character from our cocktail past was instantly appealing, but the method for doing so needed to be something special.
But first more about the man himself, Mr Tom Bullock…
So what makes Tom Bullock so special? To me there are a couple of very important answers to that question. Firstly he was an African American, and as you’ll no doubt know, race was a big issue at the time he was practicing the art of bartending. Secondly there is the legacy he left us, capturing the spirit of cocktails served in the period just prior to the dark days of Prohibition.
There’s little doubt, given the historical records, that Tom Bullock was a fantastic and skilled bartender in his day, and that alone is reason enough to honour his memory. When you take into consideration that he was born just after the American civil war, in a Southern State, when slavery had been abolished but African Americans did not have the same rights as other ‘free men’, then his rise to success and the respect he gained for his craft is all the more amazing.
While few details of his early years are known, it is believed that he was born in 1872, and that his mother (if not both of his parents), was a slave. Growing up in this era, Tom would have been limited in the jobs that were available to him, but having found his way into the service industry, it seems that his talent for bartending carried him to the highest levels available to him as a ‘man of colour’ in this era.
It is mentioned in the introduction of his book that he tended bar at the world famous Pendennis Club in Louisville and later took up residence at the St Louis Country Club. The wealthy, influential and politically active members of society in those cities would have frequented both of these venues at that time. With Tom showing a talent for mixing drinks, it is only natural that he would have crafted cocktails for some of the most influential gentlemen of the era, and in fact we know that he rubbed shoulders with some pretty big hitters. The introduction of his cocktail book was penned by no other than G H Walker, George Bush’s Grandfather (George W’s great grandfather), and as was common with books authored by African Americans in this era, it served as an endorsement to white Americans that this book was worth reading.
Perhaps most famously though we also know that he made at least one drink for the future president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt. When Teddy was campaigning he was hounded at the time by the press, who made allegations that he was a drunkard, and therefore unfit for office. Things came to a head when he sued the Editor of a paper for $10,000 for defaming his character; during the trial he swore under oath that he’d only had two sips of liquor in his life. One was said to be a sip of beer when he was campaigning in Milwaukee, and the other ‘a part’ of a mint julep in a certain country club. The St Louis Post-Dispatch printed an article that retorted:
“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, the father of the julep.”
The article goes on to state:
“To believe that a red-blooded man, and a true Colonel at that, ever stopped with just a part of one of those refreshments which have made St Louis hospitality proverbial and become one of our most distinctive genre institutions, is to strain credulity too far. Are we to believe the Colonel’s power of self-restraint altogether transcendent? Have we found the living super-man at last?
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”
With an endorsement like that, Tom’s skill at mixing drinks must have been exceptional!
That brings me onto my second answer to the question of what makes Tom Bullock so special. It might be easy to think that the colour of his skin and the timing of his book are the reasons for honouring him. While no doubt he achieved a lot despite the race-related obstacles set in his path, it is his legendary skills as a bartender and his drinks that are most important, and the fact that he had the foresight to lay down in print the recipes of many great drinks before Prohibition changed the face of drinking in America.
It’s clear that he knew Prohibition was coming, in fact one of his patrons was August Busch, and Tom concocted a recipe using Bevo, a nonalcoholic beverage developed by Anheuser-Busch in anticipation of Prohibition; additionally at the time that he published his book, the St Louis Country Club were preparing for Prohibition. So what Tom ended up leaving us was a printed record of the styles of drinks being served to influential gentlemen in the clubs of the Southern United States. It’s a pretty amazing snapshot of the times, and more than that, it is a collection of well-balanced drinks that should still be enjoyed today.
On the 26th of July 2012, a ‘spirited dinner’ like no other will be held in New Orleans as part of the Tales of the Cocktail event schedule. That’s nothing new though; they have successfully been pairing bartenders and top chefs together for years now. So to elevate it to a new level, Colin decided to move the evening away from a restaurant, and onto the Mississippi river. For one night only, the Creole Queen, a luxury paddle wheeler, will host a tribute dinner and celebration of the life and times of Tom Bullock. Jim Meehan, Colin Appiah, Tal Nadari and I will craft drinks, with a toast from David Wondrich. Sounds pretty good right? Well there’s more…
As if drinking cocktails on the Mississippi wasn’t southern enough, there will be a fine Creole inspired buffet made by Chef Jean-Pierre Pigeon. Entertainment will come in the form of a live jazz band, with a cigar lounge on hand for those who like to enjoy a smoke with their Cognac or Bourbon. The event will be sponsored by Four Roses Bourbon, Banks Rum, Bols Genever and Pierre Ferrand Cognac, with each brand offering both a punch and a cocktail inspired by the cocktails from Tom’s book. To make things even better, the ticket price for the event is an astoundingly low $66 (£45 roughly) so if you’re visiting New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, you have no excuse not to get involved.
You can get your tickets here!
So to say that I feel privileged to be included in such esteemed company as Dave, Jim, Colin and Tal, to pay tribute to a man who lived an amazing life and left an incredible legacy, is frankly an understatement. I look forward to serving drinks to the 220 guests lucky enough to secure a place on the Creole Queen on the 26th, but it seems somehow unfair that so many people from my hometown of London will be missing out on the experience. So with that in mind I have arranged with the good folks at Callooh Callay, in London, to host a miniature version of the event in their JubJub bar on the 4th of July. You have to be a member (or be really, really nice to the guys at Callooh) to be able to book a table, but if you can get through the door, I promise to do my best to make you drinks so tasty, you won’t be able to drink just ‘part of one’.
We’re hoping to put on a small selection of Creole inspired bar snacks on the night, and will be featuring two drinks each made with Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Bols Genever, Banks Golden Age Rum, and of course Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon. So if you won’t be able to join me at Tales this year, I hope you’ll come and join me at Callooh Callay, for an evening inspired by the life and times of Tom Bullock.