Tom Bullock and the Forgotten Legacy of African American Bartenders

In the midst of the cocktail renaissance, the forgotten history of America's most influential African American bartenders is finally being revived. Chantal Martineau on the first black cocktail book author, his predecessors and their joint legacy.

Both cocktail bartenders and cocktail drinkers love to romanticize the pre-Prohibition era of bar service, often imagining—and appropriating—the image of a bow tie and garter-wearing showman. Yet a quintessential bartender type from that time has long been overlooked: the dapper black man in a clean, white jacket. You’ve seen him in TV and film classics like The Palm Beach Story, To Have and Have Not—even The Love Boat. He’s based on the countless black men who tended bar in the United States, especially in the South, in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

One of these men was Tom Bullock. In 1917, Bullock became the first African American to pen a cocktail book, The Ideal Bartender, which was originally published by St. Louis-based Buxton & Skinner. Unfortunately, just three years later, Prohibition was enacted, and while Bullock enjoyed a level of notoriety few black bartenders reached, his career was cut short in its prime.

Recently, Cocktail Kingdom, known for its faithful reprints of vintage cocktail books, re-issued Bullock’s manual, an alphabetical guide of more than 150 cocktail recipes. In doing so, the memory and legacy of African Americans’ contributions to cocktail culture has been revived in the midst of the niche’s own renaissance.

Even before Bullock’s time, however, black bartenders were making a place for themselves upon the roster of America’s influential cocktail makers. There was Cato Alexander, a freed slave from South Carolina who, in the early 1800s, opened his eponymous New York inn—called Cato’s—which became famous for its punches. “Who has not heard of Cato Alexander?” was a line from the 1836 novel Memoirs of a Water Drinker by William Dunlap. Dick Francis, another former slave, earned enough as a bartender at Hancock’s in D.C. in the mid-1800s to send his son to medical school. Years later, his son bought the Pennsylvania Avenue bar.

As for Bullock, little is known about his life. Born in Louisville in the early 1870s, he was the son of an ex-Union soldier and, almost certainly, a slave. After working in several cities and a railroad club car, he settled in St. Louis. At the St. Louis Country Club, he served such well-heeled patrons as George Herbert Walker, the grandfather and great-grandfather of the 41st and 43rd U.S. presidents. Walker was so taken with Bullock that he penned the foreword to The Ideal Bartender. “I doubt if he has erred in even one of his concoctions,” he wrote.

At the Four Seasons, only blocks from where Hancock’s stood, head bartender Duane Sylvestre has held talks about the history of black bartenders in America. “In the saloons you had an industry where black people were able to perform a craft,” says Sylvestre. “To be able to have an interaction with a customer was special. That’s the beauty of bartending: it allows you to communicate as a peer with your customers.”

Washington, in fact, was home to the Mixologist Club, a social organization made up of the city’s most prominent black bartenders. “The ones, that is, who catered to a black clientele,” explains historian David Wondrich. He points out that black bartenders serving white customers would have been more common and accepted in the South. Many Northerners might have found such an arrangement distasteful. In D.C., a sort of liminal space between North and South, members of the Mixologist Club held the respect of both their African American peers and statesmen alike. An obituary for Dick Francis mentions his standing with politicians—a man so highly regarded he was appointed to manage the bar at the U.S. Senate’s restaurant.

As for Bullock, little is known about his life. Born in Louisville in the early 1870s, he was the son of an ex-Union soldier and a slave, as Rafia Zafar points out in an essay published in African American Foodways, entitled “Recipes for Respect: Black Hospitality Entrepreneurs Before World War I.” In his twenties, he worked as a bellboy before graduating to bartender at Louisville’s Pendennis Club. After working in several cities and a railroad club car, he settled in St. Louis. At the St. Louis Country Club, he served such well-heeled patrons as George Herbert Walker, the grandfather and great-grandfather of the 41st and 43rd U.S. presidents. Walker was so taken with Bullock that he penned the foreword to The Ideal Bartender. “I doubt if he has erred in even one of his concoctions,” he wrote. His contribution helped validate the book to its white audiences, like so many published slave narratives that were prefaced with an introduction by a notable white man.

As further endorsement, the first pages of the book included an editorial from a St. Louis tabloid poking fun at Theodore Roosevelt who, after being accused of drinking “not infrequently,” testified that he took but a few sips of a Mint Julep at the club where Bullock was employed. “Who was ever known to drink just a part of one of Tom’s?” the newspaper quipped. “Are the Colonel’s powers of restraint altogether transcendent?”

Even today, readers are finding Bullock’s creations notable. Greg Boehm of Cocktail Kingdom collected vintage cocktail books for more than a decade before finding an original copy of The Ideal Bartender. He calls the book “exceedingly rare” given that it was one of the last to be published before Prohibition. “It has some recipes that I’d never heard of and several important firsts,” he adds, citing the Blood Hound (fresh strawberries, Old Tom gin), the Pequot Semer (lime, mint, grenadine, pineapple and orange juices, Old Tom gin) and the Onion Cocktail (like a Gibson, but with Old Tom instead of London Dry). Apparently, old Tom loved his Old Tom.

“We think of him as a bartender and, yes, maybe even the ideal bartender,” says Sylvestre, who echoes the sentiments of many of his colleagues in suggesting that the mark of a fine barman has less to do with the concoctions he creates than with the impression he leaves upon his customers. It’s something he believes Bullock would have well understood. “In a sense, he was also a hell of a photographer. [His book provides] a snapshot of what drinks were being served in the South right before his craft was about to disappear.”

Today, you don’t see many African Americans making a career of mixology. Given our history, many of us have been taught to spurn service industry careers. But the memory of Tom Bullock can only serve to inspire young people of color with the desire to shake and stir. Sylvestre, along with global rum ambassador Ian Burrell (who wrote the new introduction to Bullock’s book) and Franky Marshall (formerly of Clover Club and The Dead Rabbit) each acknowledge that their African American predecessors are oft-cited role models. “It can be important to have that,” says Marshall, referring to inspirational figures in whom we see ourselves.

“We were servants,” muses Darryl Bullock, Tom’s grandnephew, whose greatest regret is not learning more about his uncle from his grandmother before she died. Referring to his ancestors he continues, “We used what we learned as slaves to become cooks and caterers… My uncle must have been very good at what he did for so many people to know his name. And that makes me proud.”

Bullock often finds himself wondering what his uncle would make of today’s cocktail culture. For all the wistful hearkening back to the past, one thing is certain: Times have changed.

Related Articles

Chantal Martineau has written about wine, spirits, food and travel for Saveur, Afar, The Atlantic, Departures, Decanter, The Guardian and more. She is the author of How the Gringos Stole Tequila, out in May 2015.

FROM AROUND THE WEB