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Getting a ‘Kentucky Hug’ from your ideal bartender in downtown Louisville
By Tom Adkinson
April 28, 2023

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kentucky hug - evan williams experience
Tom Bullock, portrayed here by George Harris, imparts plenty of bourbon history during “The Ideal Bartender” event. Image by Tom Adkinson

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The only bartender better than one who will listen to your sob story or not-so-funny jokes is one who flips the scenario and tells you stories – and good stories, too.

Tom Bullock – or at least the spirit of Tom Bullock – is that kind of bartender. You can meet at the Evan Williams Experience, a bourbon attraction on Louisville’s Whiskey Row.

More specifically, you can meet an excellent actor who portrays Bullock, in a hideaway speakeasy in the attraction’s basement. It’s an activity called “The Ideal Bartender,” and more traditional tours occur on upper levels.

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To enter the speakeasy for “The Ideal Bartender” presentation, you must get approval through peephole. Image from Evan Williams

Evan Williams takes the speakeasy theme to the max. You can’t get in until someone on the inside of a very solid door slides open a peephole to check you out. When you gain admission, you are in a wood-paneled room dominated by an inviting 15-stool oak bar.

Why does Bullock command such theatrical attention? Easy. He was a Black man quite famous in his bartending days in Louisville and St. Louis in the early 1900s. He earned lasting fame by writing “The Ideal Bartender” in 1917.

“The Ideal Bartender” was Bullock’s compilation of original cocktail recipes, now known as the first cocktail book written by a Black man and one of the last drink recipe collections published before Prohibition. Historians cite “The Ideal Bartender” book as an insight into America’s imbibing habits before the failed experiment of the Volstead Act began in 1920.

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One of America’s favorite cocktails, the Old Fashioned, is central to “The Ideal Bartender” presentation. Image from Evan Williams

Your time with Bullock (in my case, with George Harris, who never broke character) lasts about an hour and provides a solid education in Kentucky bourbon.

Bullock explains what makes certain whiskeys bourbon, and of course, concentrates on the history of the Evan Williams brand. He notes that Evan Williams was the first licensed distiller in Kentucky, way back in 1783.

More importantly, Bullock mixes you an Old-Fashioned (a cocktail that the Pendennis Club in Louisville claims to have originated) and pours you samples of three Evan Williams products (an Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch, an Evan Williams Red Label and an Elijah Craig Barrel Proof).

Bullock – nattily attired in a crisp white shirt, red vest, bowtie and gold cuff links – also dispenses information about how to inspect, smell and ultimately taste a fine whiskey. The technique, he said, is the perhaps inelegant “Kentucky Chew.” Roll a taste around your mouth and actually chew on the liquid. That puts the amber liquid in different parts of your mouth and allows you to detect subtle difference in flavors.

(A word to the wise: Although Bullock will not over-serve you, it’s wise not to visit on an empty stomach.)

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After the Tom Bullock character explains the “Kentucky Chew,” you get to sample three Evan Williams bourbons. Image by Tom Adkinson

Bullock’s narration includes glimpses into his life as a restaurant helper, a Pullman porter and a Black bartender in private clubs for wealthy white patrons.

One of his stories is particularly tasty. It is about his supporting role in a libel suit that Theodore Roosevelt brought against a St. Louis newspaper. The slightly complicated tale involves Roosevelt’s contention that he consumed only part of a Bullock cocktail. A newspaper reporter questioned Roosevelt’s veracity, contending it was impossible not to finish one of Bullock’s masterpieces.

evan williams bar
When you enter the speakeasy, a 15-seat oak bar fills the room and is the stage for the Tom Bullock character to perform. Image from Evan Williams

When your time with Bullock concludes, you definitely understand one of Bullock’s anecdotes in which he describes the “Kentucky Hug.”

That’s the warm glow you get after tasting a fine bourbon.

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After the Tom Bullock character explains the “Kentucky Chew,” you get to sample three Evan Williams bourbons. Image by Tom Adkinson


Trip-planning resources:, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available on The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is included in the third edition of the book, which is available at

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