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A Bar Program Aimed at Fighting Inequality

How one Louisville distillery is tackling the bar world’s diversity problem.

In 1917, Tom Bullock, a St. Louis bartender, published a cocktail book, The Ideal Bartender. Bullock certainly wasn’t the first bartender to accomplish this feat, nor was he nationally famous along the lines of Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson, celebrities in the field. But he accomplished one thing that successfully etched his name in annals of barroom lore: he was the first African-American bartender in America to publish a cocktail manual.

One century later, his legacy is proving an even more potent influence on the industry than it did during his lifetime.

In July, Copper & Kings, the young Louisville distillery known for its brandy, graduated the first class of the Ideal Bartender School, its new education wing designed to foster diversity within the Louisville bar community, and named for Bullock.

To use the term favored by Bullock, the school arrives at an ideal time. The bartending community, mirroring the social and political turmoil that has gripped the nation at large over the past couple years, has been struggling with how to address issues of inequality within the bar world. Women and people of color are asking for a greater voice and larger role in bars, as well as other liquor related enterprises. In the most recent—and highest profile—clash to date, Ann and Paul Tuennerman, who founded and ran the renowned Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans, were forced to step down over their handling of a chain of events that began with their donning blackface in a Mardi Gras parade in March of this year.

It is an issue that matters deeply to Joe Heron, the man who, in 2014, founded Copper & Kings. “As a company, we’re interested in diversity,” Heron says. When Bullock’s book was reissued by Cocktail Kingdom in 2015, Heron took notice. It seemed like the perfect hook. (It helped that Bullock was born in Louisville.)

“It was very interesting that this African-American man from Louisville, Kentucky, had so little recognition. He is not only a symbol of diversity; he is a beacon of economic mobility,” Heron explains. He began serving cocktails from Bullock’s books at Copper & Kings’ events, selling the book at the distillery and also held an event honoring Bullock.

In 2016, during a layover at LaGuardia Airport with Louisville mayor Greg Fischer, he was inspired to take his efforts further.

“Fischer said, ‘Joe, one of the big problems we have in Louisville is we have to bring more people along for the ride,’” recalls Heron. “Louisville has an east-west divide, east being more diverse and more affluent, and the west being more African-American and less developed.”

Heron thought a bartending school could help bridge that economic chasm by providing an intense, thorough, free-of-cost education to those who might otherwise have trouble finding inroads into the bar business. To oversee the 14-week course, Heron tapped Eron Plevan, a Copper & Kings bartender and brand ambassador who had worked at such notable Louisville bars as Meat, Meta and the bar at the Seelbach Hotel.

Finding students, however, wasn’t as easy.

“We did Facebook and social media and the websites and all of those things,” says Heron. But that wasn’t enough. Copper & King employees went further, paying face-to-face visits at public libraries and employment centers, anyplace where an unlikely bartender candidate might be found. “Whenever there was a career fair, we had a representative handing out flyers,” says Heron.

In the end, many of the students who applied found out about the new school their own way. Tajuanda Ghant, 25, who goes by TJ, heard about Ideal while taking a tour of the distillery. She was, at that time, working at a Louisville restaurant called SuperChefs. Recently, management had thrown her behind the bar where, not knowing what she was doing, she adopted a “fake it till I make it” approach to the work. She thought the Ideal Bartender School might fill in the gaps in her knowledge.

Ghant, in turn, told a friend, April Gales, a 23-year-old Louisville native who was attending college. Gales also enrolled. “Ever since I turned 21, I always wanted to gain more knowledge about what it’s like being behind the bar,” explains Gales.

A bartender told Kristen Thomas, 26, about the school. Thomas, who worked as a manager at a local hotel, had never heard of Copper & Kings. But the school seemed like the answer to a Catch 22 that keeps many people out of the bar industry. “I didn’t know how to go about being a bartender,” says Thomas.

Another candidate was right under Heron’s nose: Darci Stuhlman had recently been hired as a tour guide at Copper & Kings. “I asked if I could sit in on the classes,” says Stuhlman. “I didn’t expect to be able to participate, but students and teachers alike pulled me in.”

Classes covered the techniques of bartending as well as the history and profile of various spirits. They were taught by a variety of parties. For the whiskey session, Heron reached out to Brown-Forman, the Kentucky-based company that makes Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and Old Forester bourbon, among others. Representatives from Moonshine University, the Louisville distilling school, handled gin and vodka. Copper & Kings itself discussed American brandy and Cognac.

“It was actually more than I expected,” says Thomas, who learned how to eyeball a two-ounce pour during the very first class. “I was thinking I’d go in and just learn things out of a book.”

The final exam came in the form of a cocktail competition, where all the students had to devise a new drink inspired by a particular song; they call it “MIXT&PE.” The panel of judges included professionals from the bar and spirits worlds, including beverage directors, brand ambassadors and bartenders.

“The MIXT&PE competition was chosen as the best format for the Ideal Bartender School students to show off what they learned over the 14 weeks,” explains Heron. “It is very useful to put [them] under some pressure, and to also enable them to illustrate all the areas of competence, including personality.”

Of the 15 people that enrolled, 14 made it to the finish line. Copper & Kings did not guarantee any of the students a job, but has lent a helping hand by hiring many of the graduates to bartend at the various events that are frequently held at the distillery. Some students have also found work outside the distillery—one even snagged a part-time gig at the bar, Red Herring, where bartenders must be able to make all 100 classic cocktails that are featured on the menu.

The second class at The Ideal Bartender School will convene in January, says Heron. But he is not greedy about his new enterprise; he hopes his example will lead people in other cities to create additional branches of the Ideal Bartender School.

“This is not about us,” he says. “This is about providing opportunity.”

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