Joe Heron’s All-Inclusive Bartending School

The Ideal Bartender School aims to offer disadvantaged communities an economic path forward—and other organizations are following suit

Photo courtesy of Joe Heron.

In late 2016, Joe Heron found himself chatting with Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, about the city’s newfound economic vibrancy and how the opportunity for growth could be extended across the city’s notorious Ninth Street Divide. Heron didn’t hesitate. “[Mayor Fischer] said, ‘The challenge for us is that we have to bring more people along for the ride,’” Heron recalls. “I said, ‘Let’s do a bartending school.’”

Heron isn’t one to let risk, doubt, or naysayers interfere with his startups. He and his wife, Lesley, launched Crispin Cider Co., now a multimillion-dollar cidery owned by MillerCoors, in 2008 when cider was a largely ignored fraction of the beer market. In 2014 the Herons hedged their bets on brandy, of all things—a spirit that domestic consumers have only recently started to dust off—when they opened Copper & Kings American Brandy distillery (not accidentally) in the middle of bourbon country. When it came to establishing a school, Heron forged ahead with confidence.

Laying the Foundation

His concept for The Ideal Bartender School was to create a curriculum that would provide students with a rigorous and well-rounded education, enabling them to catalyze careers in the hospitality industry—“Not,” he says, “a school for hobbyists.”

Fresh in Heron’s mind was research he’d done on the life and work of Tom Bullock, an African American bartender born in Louisville in the late 19th century who went on to write the bartender’s manual for which Heron’s school is named. “One hundred years ago, through his craft,” says Heron, “Tom Bullock made a good middle-class living because he had these skills.”

Heron asserts that in Bullock’s time as well as today, in 2018, bartending isn’t just a stopgap. For many, it can provide financial security and an economic path forward. “Being a bartender is a serious job,” says Heron. “It’s a career. It’s something you can build a big life upon.” By framing bartending as a vocational skill rather than a fallback plan or part-time gig, and empowering students with practical experience, the school qualifies its graduates for a variety of industry jobs.

Immediately after his conversation with the mayor, Heron began mapping out logistics. Though he’d never launched an educational initiative like The Ideal Bartending School before, Heron thought it fit well within the Copper & Kings wheelhouse. The distillery’s second-floor art gallery would be the perfect classroom venue, and a team of the distillery’s own employees, with an “all hands on deck” style, could ably assemble and administer coursework. Copper & Kings’ creative director, Ron Jasin, created the school’s workbook and an outreach strategy, while Eron Plevan, who tended bar at the distillery, helped oversee the curriculum—they’d leverage local industry connections to help them round out the curriculum.

SevenFifty for Importers

The team tapped local industry leaders to help design and teach the coursework: Sam Cruz, the co-owner of the Louisville brewpub Against the Grain, would teach students about beer, while Jesus Martinez of Brown-Forman would lead coursework on agave spirits. Old Forester’s master taster, Jackie Zykan, would lead an overview of whiskey, bourbon, and Scotch, and Susie Hoyt of the Louisville bar The Pearl would give students an introductory lecture on the principles of hospitality. Says Heron, “It was really a community effort.”

The course was designed to last 15 weeks, with students meeting every Wednesday night for three hours. It would conclude with a cocktail competition judged by Louisville bartenders. And the most important part: For the two dozen students who made it all the way through the application and interview process, it would be completely free of charge. “Our ambition for the whole thing,” Heron says, “was to provide an economic path for those that come from more disadvantaged backgrounds.” The following July, in 2017, The Ideal Bartender School graduated its first class.

Breaking Down Barriers

Once bartenders are established in the industry, there are plenty opportunities for them to continue sharpening their skills and building their knowledge. There are an ever-growing number of brand-sponsored competitions, educational conferences, and prestigious (and correspondingly pricey) programs like the BAR 5-Day, which has been compared to a master’s degree for mixology. There are immersive, days-long experiences like Gaz Regan’s Cocktails in the Country (which does offer scholarships) and the whiskey-centric Camp Runamok. And just this summer, the James Beard Foundation announced its first Beverage Studies Scholarship, specifically for drinks professionals enrolling in, or interested in enrolling in, accredited programs of study within the wine or spirits fields. But when it comes to bringing people from the outside in, especially from disadvantaged communities, Heron says there’s still work to be done.

Earlier this year, Aaron Polsky, the bar manager of Harvard & Stone in Los Angeles, approached Pernod Ricard and asked if it would consider offering a Spanish language translation of its BarSmarts manual. His goal was to help break down the language barrier that makes it difficult for Spanish speakers in the service industry to move up the ladder in bars and restaurants. While Pernod Ricard’s educational program wasn’t specifically developed with social equity in mind, its price point makes it attainable for a wide audience—the BarSmarts online certification programs provide reliable, vetted educational opportunities, accessible to anyone with an internet connection for only $30.

Besides branded educational programs like BarSmarts, a few organizations within the industry also put education at the core of their mission. Darci Stuhlman, the event sales manager at Copper & Kings, points to the United States Bartenders Guild as an example, saying, “They’ve been inclusive, welcoming, educational, and really masterful in integrating skill in hospitality since the late ’40s.”

In Chicago, Causing a Stir hosts educational luncheons and workshops for local service industry members throughout the year and is seeking 501(c)3 status as a nonprofit. “There are amazing opportunities available, [but] I believe we still have a lot of work to do to reach underserved populations,” says founder Alexis Brown—regarding not only racial diversity and income inequality but also working populations that have historically been excluded from the craft bartending narrative and dialogue, such as employees of chain restaurants and adult lounges.

For Heron, it was important that his school bridge race and gender barriers as well as economic divides. Its student body is notably diverse, especially in a town that’s largely white: people of color made up 93 percent of this year’s graduating class, and women students have outnumbered men in the program.

One such woman is Stuhlman. She is an alum of the Ideal Bartender School’s inaugural class. At the time she applied, she was working a number of part-time jobs (including leading tours at the Copper & Kings distillery two or three days a week), trying to figure out what her professional future held. Today she works full-time in her event sales manager role at the distillery. Some of her classmates have gone on to work behind the bar at local hotels and restaurants—one oversees the beverage program at the new AC Hotel in Louisville, a Marriott concept; another works alongside Brown-Forman’s Jesus Martinez at his restaurant, Con Huevos. Stuhlman says that the school not only gave her and her classmates practical knowledge but acted as a springboard to a range of different career options within the industry. “Bartending is not only a career in and of itself,” she says. “There are a million hospitality or sales jobs that bartending can be the first step toward.”

As for Heron, he hopes that The Ideal Bartender School can provide a blueprint for other organizations that want to extend a helping hand in their communities. Over the long-term, Heron adds, he’ll look to partner with a company or organization that can help scale up the school’s efforts nationwide, while keeping the program free of charge. “I think in life, there are three stages: First there’s movement, then there’s momentum, then there’s velocity,” says Heron. “We’re in the movement stage. And we’re going to keep pushing to build momentum.”

Read our Q&A with Joe Heron.


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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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