Recently, the City of Louisville pulled together a dynamic team from various museums, services, and skillsets to establish lessons in Black heritage called The Unfiltered Truth Collection. Included is the history of bourbon explained through The Ideal Bartender Experience at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience or Black Americans in Bourbon at the Frazier History Museum. While in attendance, one of the main facts visitors learn is the secret to good bourbon—water.
“Kentucky is the mecca of bourbon,” says Greg Ward, training and development manager of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. “Obviously, every other city and every other state has water, but what makes Kentucky’s water unique is that Kentucky sits on a gigantic limestone shelf, and that rainwater filters all through that limestone and it goes through the aquifer, and people are able to get the water out of the aquifers.”
He continues, “The limestone does a couple of things, it adds minerals, but the most important thing it does is take out the iron. And if you make whiskey with any type of iron in the water, then it turns black. That is why a lot of people contribute Kentucky for having a good bourbon industry because of the water.”
Who is Tom Bullock?
Speaking of The Ideal Bartender Experience, Ward shares, “Tom Bullock is a very important gentleman in history because he was an African American bartender. He used to work at the Pendennis Club before prohibition and he was the son of a former slave. He is famous for a number of reasons, but the most famous reason that we’re associated with is because he invented the old fashion cocktail. What he did was use bourbon, and most importantly he wrote a cocktail book called “The Ideal Bartender.” He published it, and that is how he got his claim to fame.”
Black Americans in Bourbon
Brian West, the creative mind behind Black Americans in Bourbon, says, “It’s not just one man that’s responsible for the story of bourbon. It’s many people, and I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that those who were enslaved were really instrumental in carrying the burden of having to harvest the crops, having to mash the grains, and after slavery worked in the distilleries patching, fixing the leaks and putting on the labels.”
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Both experiences not only teach attendees the history of bourbon but also gives a rundown of key individuals, past and present, that played a part in the production like Tom Bullock, James V. Johnson, Jimmy Johnson, Freddie Williams, Elmer Lucille Allen, The Brough Brothers, and Tia and Shawn Edwards.
West expounds, “The history of Black Americans and bourbon is very complicated. There are still very many bright spots, especially nowadays. It’s really a story that until now has not been documented and has not been told.”
How It Came About
Louisville’s Unfiltered Truth Collection covers several historical events of the African American experience. Jordan Skora, marketing communications manager of Louisville Tourism, explains more about this collection of Black heritage and how it came to be.
“When news of Muhammad Ali’s passing in 2016 shook up the world and garnered global media attention it was apparent that there was a desire for people to have a place to celebrate his life and legacy, and a curated experience around Ali tourism was born. The attention this generated shined a light on our visitor demographics and the fact that only 11% of the city’s visitors were Black when Louisville’s Black residents make up over 22% of the population.
“Our leadership wanted to grow this percentage. While marketing Ali and bourbon tourism more directly to Black consumers, we learned of the 100th anniversary of Tom Bullock’s “Ideal Bartender” cocktail book and his ties to Louisville. Combined with the Black jockey’s legacy and the desire to grow visitation, the idea to cultivate a collection of Louisville’s Black heritage experiences was born.”