Tom Bullock. | Photo courtesy of Copper & Kings

Nearly two dozen hotels are planned for construction in Louisville, and at least that many new restaurants open annually.

Yet the local labor pool is shallower than ever and, many would argue, less skilled than needed for a city with a booming hospitality industry.

Joe and Lesley Heron, owners of Copper & Kings American Brandy Distillery, have a plan to remedy the shortage—behind the bar at least—with the creation of the Ideal Bartender School. The name is inspired by the pre-Prohibition cocktail book, “The Ideal Bartender,” authored by Tom Bullock, a Louisville native and the son of slaves, who went on to gain prominence as a respected mixologist of his day.

This past Wednesday, Bullock’s legacy—made vague by time and minimal records about his life, which stretched from 1873 to 1964—was honored at a reception at Copper & Kings. Historian and local food and drink writer, Michael Jones, shared the results of his research into Bullock’s life. His service industry career began as a bellboy at The Pendennis Club, where he eventually became a popular bartender. In 1905, he was recruited for the same post at the long-gone Kenton Club, and later moved to work at the prestigious St. Louis Country Club.

The Ideal Bartender
The Ideal Bartender

In 1917, he published “The Ideal Bartender,” the first cocktail book published by a black bartender in America. Jones said its 173 cocktail recipes are an amalgam of originals and classics that always reflect Bullock’s own twists. (The once-out-of-print work was republished by Greg Boehm, founder of CocktailKingdom.com, and is available by clicking here.)

Sadly, his trade—in a public sense, anyway—disappeared with national Prohibition in 1920, and little is known about his work thereafter. Even Jones’ initial and ongoing efforts revealed little else about this influential man, though he did discover a grandson of the man who still lives in Louisville.

It’s in that spirit that the Herons want to see more Bullocks in this city, not only to bolster the bartending ranks here, they want to give a helping hand to men and women who are economically disadvantaged, but who want to learn the trade as a means of good paid employment. At the event—which took place 100 years to the day after Bullock’s book was published—they announced the creation of the Ideal Bartender School.

The 14-week, intensive training course will include 3-hour sessions that center on beverage history, types, distillation, brewing, practical bartending skills and, of course, cocktail making. The course runs from May 10 through mid-August, and accepts students by application only. (To get an application, at Copper & Kings visitors center, idealbartenderschool.com, Jewish Family Career Services Center, The Kentucky Career Center, the Kentuckiana Works College Access Center, the Louisville Urban League.)

“We will have high expectations of students in this program,” Heron said. The goal, he added is to prepare them for “bartending as a means of employment and economic mobility.”

The course, which will be hosted at Copper & Kings, has the support of Brown-Forman, Against the Grain Brewery, Moonshine University and other Louisville spirits and wine professionals. The classes will include homework, require students to study for exams that, as Heron hopes, turn out bartenders fit for hire in Louisville’s hospitality community.

“We need more Tom Bullocks in our community, but that won’t change without someone providing that opportunity,” Heron said in a separate interview. “Les and I see this as a realistic and practical way to help the hospitality industry in Louisville in a long-lasting way. We can’t wait to see it get started.”

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