Breaking Down Barriers with Bar Education

The founder of Ideal Bartender School on creating opportunities and building brands across industry lines

Joe Heron
Joe Heron. Photo courtesy of Joe Heron.

Joe Heron has a “more walking, less talking” philosophy when it comes to turning ideas into reality. This is how Heron and his wife, Lesley, have become such successful serial entrepreneurs, founding brands like Crispin Cider and Copper & Kings American Brandy. And it’s why, after he had a conversation about economic disparity with the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, Heron decided to use his expertise do something about it: He started a bartending school.

Heron’s vision for his Ideal Bartender School, which opened in 2017, was to provide underserved Louisville citizens with the skills to make bartending a sustainable career—at no cost to students. Here, Heron speaks about the genesis of The Ideal Bartender School, the challenges he and his team encountered along the way, and the opportunity for future initiatives like this at the national level. —Gray Chapman

SevenFifty Daily: Tell us about The Ideal Bartender School. Where did the idea come from?

Joe Heron: One day, I was sitting in the airport with the mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer, and we were talking about the city. He said, “You know, the challenge for us is that we have to bring more people along for the ride.” And he’s absolutely right.

We knew we wanted to make this a real bartending school, not a school for hobbyists. Out of nearly 175 applicants this year, 80 were interviewed, and only 15 selected. It’s quite rigorous because being a bartender is a serious job; it’s a career and it’s something you can build a big life upon.

What is the problem you aim to solve?

Our ambition is to provide an economic path forward for those that come from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve encountered, and how did you address it?

By far, the biggest challenge has been recruitment. We’re not talking about people who have enough money to be online all the time. We put up posters in employment centers, refugee centers, barbershops, public libraries—wherever we could. The outreach is by far the most complex part. For us to have gotten 175 written applications, that’s a lot.

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Whom are you most inspired by?

The people I’m inspired by in this business? Everybody who’s still alive and standing. It’s really hard. American craft spirits were built on the shoulders of brandy distillers. From Hubert Germain-Robin, the distillation consultant in California who developed the Germain-Robin line of brandies, to Steve McCarthy, the founder and master distiller of Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon—they were all brandy distillers from the beginning. Dan Farber at Osocalis in Soquel, California, is a brandy distiller I’m really fond of; Paul Hletko, the founder of FEW Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, is doing really great work. I think the guys at St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, do very good work. Outside of brandy, someone like Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, inspires me, too.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?

Lesley and I have started three businesses—that’s quite a feat of stupidity, but we have. You can be anything you want in America; you just can’t be lazy. I’m proud of starting NutriSoda, and I’m proud of starting Crispin, and I’m proud of starting Copper & Kings. This is my creative expression. I like taking concepts out of the ether and making them into businesses. But mostly I’m just proud of staying alive in business.

What’s your favorite drink?

I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to booze. I like whiskey and I like bourbon, but I like Scotch a lot. Fortunately, as a brandy maker, I have the excuse of drinking wine, and I love wine.

And your favorite Copper & Kings bottling?

Butchertown Brandy is probably my favorite. It’s very big and very bold, and I like that. It makes a cocktail less sweet and less acidic—it just gives it more boozy heft.

Click here to read more about Joe Heron: Joe Heron’s All-Inclusive Bartending School.


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Gray Chapman is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes about spirits, beauty, and culture; she was formerly the managing editor of Tales of the Cocktail. Follow her on Twitter.

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