“Is it any wonder that mankind stands open-mouthed before the bartender, considering the mysteries and marvels of an art that borders on magic?”
— Tom Bullock, The Ideal Bartender
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It was 1913, and Theodore Roosevelt was in court.
Roosevelt was a strange and erratic man, and was often accused of being an alcoholic, despite his continual, fervid insistence that he’d never been drunk in his life. Fed up with this libel, he vowed to sue the next publication that claimed it, ultimately taking out his anger on a tiny Michigan newspaper called the Ishpeming Iron Ore. As a witness under cross examination, Roosevelt did acknowledge a fondness for Mint Juleps, and further admitted that he had tasted a Julep once at the St. Louis Country Club, but only drank “a part” of it.
As far as the St. Louis Post Dispatch was concerned, this “just a part” business was proof he was lying. It was literally unbelievable. Why? Because the cocktail in question had been prepared by none other than Tom Bullock. “Who was ever known to drink a part of one of Tom’s?” editorialized the paperon March 28, 1913, “To believe that a red-blooded man, and a true Colonel at that, ever stopped with just a part of these refreshments… is to strain credulity too far,” adding of Bullock that “there is no greater mixologist of any race, color, or condition of servitude.”
This is most of what we know of Tom Bullock—that he was revered as a bartender for over 25 years serving the best establishments in Louisville and St. Louis, and, as you can probably tell from that last sentence, that he was black. Bullock was the first African American to publish a cocktail book, called The Ideal Bartender, in 1917. His volume is sadly short on personal details: After the quote up top and the reproduction of the Dispatch editorial, the only other bit that isn’t a drink recipe is an introduction from George Herbert Walker (if those three names in that order sound familiar, it’s because he was the grandfather of the 41st President of the United States) who writes that “I have known the author of ‘The Ideal Bartender’ for many years, and it is a genuine privilege to be permitted to testify to his qualifications for such a work.”
This isn’t much, and the mind thirsts for more. Some diligent researchers have been able to unearth the shape of his life, and that of black bartenders more generally from Reconstruction to WWI—particularly Michael Jones the former, and David Wondrich the latter—but this column is about cocktails, and Bullock’s talent, told through his cocktails, was enormous.
As noted, he was a wizard with the Mint Julep. He had the good idea of mixing absinthe and Benedictine, the first author I’ve seen do that. He was perhaps the first to publish a Martini-like cocktail with an onion, that would become the Gibson. He also has a flurry of original cocktails, any one of which I’d be proud to present to you today, but my favorite is the Admiral Schley High Ball, made of Irish Whiskey, lemon juice, pineapple syrup, dessert wine, and soda.
Schley was a Navy Admiral and a hero of the Spanish-American War, and this is actually not the only drink named for him (the other is a bourbon and rum Daiquiri of sorts in Charles Baker’s 1939 A Gentleman’s Companion), but Bullock’s drink was first, to say nothing of being both more creative and tastier. The Admiral Schley’s High Ball is a lovely and disarming drink, the bright fruit of the pineapple teasing out the honeyed brightness of the dessert wine, with the mild oak from the Irish Whiskey providing structure, a kind of a gentle but present backbone. It plays to Irish Whiskey’s core strength, which is that it’s such a soft and approachable spirit that subtle fruit—that which would be bludgeoned by bourbon or even scotch—is allowed to express itself and entice you with its subtleties.
It’s an inventive and delicious original from an excellent bartender, the flavors obvious in the way that great ideas always seem obvious in hindsight. We don’t recommend using it as any kind of valid legal defense, but it’s certainly worth your time on its own, or to make as a kind of toast to the noble past, and the mysteries and marvels of an art that borders on magic.
Admiral Schley High Ball
2 oz. Irish whiskey
0.5 oz. white dessert wine, like Tokaj or Sauternes
0.75 oz. pineapple syrup
0.75 oz. lemon juice
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and shake on ice for six to eight seconds. Strain into a tall glass over fresh ice, top with soda (optional) and garnish with a pineapple wedge or lemon peel.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Irish Whiskey: This drink really shines when the whiskey provides soft supple fruit and a faint malty sweetness but mostly gets out of the way, functioning as the structural framework on which the other ingredients sit. Fortunately for us, the big, inexpensive, easy-to-find Irish Whiskeys will be perfect, like Tullamore D.E.W, Bushmills, Jameson, Power’s, and others.
Pineapple Syrup: For a quick and easy pineapple syrup, you can mix equal parts pineapple juice (Dole cans are fine) and sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. If you want it even quicker and easier, you can buy it—standout producers are Small Hand Foods and Liber & Co., which sell a “Pineapple Gum Syrup” (don’t worry about the word “gum,” it merely refers to gum arabic, a historical ingredient added for richer texture).
Dessert Wine: This is the big question. Bullock calls for “Tokay, Angelica, or Sweet Catawba Wine,” which flavor-wise is a little all over the place—one suspects in 1917, you take what you can get. That said, personally I prefer white dessert wines here, and if it can have some honeyed character from Botrytis, all the better, so I’ve had the best luck with Sauternes or the Hungarian Tokaj (though the dried-grape style Vin de Palle was also totally delicious so I think there’s some latitude here). Just know that your proportions of pineapple syrup (for sweetness) or Irish Whiskey (for strength) might need to be adjusted, depending on which bottle you grab.
And I should probably note that while the dessert wine is what makes the drink special, if you can’t find it or simply don’t want to, it’s still plenty good with just the whiskey, lemon, pineapple syrup, and soda.
Soda: With a more intensely fruity dessert wine, I liked the soda because it gives the drink length and puts room between the flavors. For a more honeyed wine, I preferred it without. Your mileage may vary, again, depending on your wine choice.
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