John Burton, owner of Santa Rosa Bartending School, has never been much of a drinking man. In this interview with Rhys Alvarado, he talks about his school, his craft, and his astounding collection of cocktail memorabilia. All photos by Kelly Puleio.
John Burton’s never been much of a drinking man. Hard to believe from someone who practically lives in a cocktail museum.
When you step into his home in Santa Rosa, California, you see shelf after shelf lined with more than 1,500 priceless cocktail books, countless antique bottles (with booze still in ’em), and other memorabilia: from the pre-cocktail era of Charles Dickens and his punches to the original hardbacks of Jerry Thomas, dubbed “The Father of American Bartending.”
Burton’s fascination with cocktails is a lifelong love he’s been able to share with students who attend his bartending courses.
“I’ll keep making drinks until the day that I die,” he said.
Since 1978, Burton has owned and operated the Santa Rosa Bartending School, a two-week training program for enthusiasts and people looking to begin a career behind the stick. It’s the longest running bartending school in California. During the course, Burton instills his belief that bartending is both a profession and a trade one can take anywhere. It’s something he finds most gratifying when former students become owners and operators down the line.
His attendance record as an instructor is nearly perfect. “The only time I’d ever missed a class was when I suffered a heart attack,” he said.
Earlier last year, in the middle of teaching his morning class, Burton began feeling woozy and felt a great pain erupting from his chest. He cut the class short and was taken directly to the hospital. A few weeks later, he was back in the classroom. “Now I’m better and living with more energy than I’ve ever had,” Burton said.
One of his most prized books is 1917’s The Ideal Bartender by Tom Bullock. It has become a pillar he stands by in life and a lesson he gives his students.
A century ago, Bullock became the first African American man to pen a cocktail book, with more than 150 recipes, during a time when black bartenders were making their way up the ranks of influential drink makers. He was Kentucky born, the son of an ex-Union soldier and a slave. As a young man, Bullock worked as a bellboy and was promoted to bartender at Louisville’s Pendennis Club. He eventually went on to run the bar at the St. Louis Country Club and serve patrons such as George Herbert Walker, grandfather and great-grandfather of the 41st and 43rd presidents.
“Whenever one of my students tells me they can’t do something, I tell them the story of Tom Bullock,” Burton said. “A black man in charge of white bartenders — think about that one.” Perhaps the only mistake Bullock ever made was that he published his book just before Prohibition, so many people don’t even know about him.
Burton likes to call himself an old-world bartender, resistant to using dishwashers and preferring to wash them by hand. In one of his 9 a.m. classes, I watched him educate students on the ins and outs of bartending: setting up the bar; changing kegs; handling customers during operation; checking IDs. Even the appropriate way to do last call. His teaching style is both technical and theoretical, sprinkled with recollections of long and busy nights spent pouring drinks, with dollar bills scattered along the bar top.
“It’s all about the bright lights and painted city ladies — there’s nothing better,” said Burton, who’s been shaking up potions for nearly fifty years.
Strangely enough, he’s a bartender who doesn’t drink. Although he pushes on with a relentless drive to teach students about America’s first true culinary art, he himself hasn’t sipped a spirit in over thirty years. In 1985, when his wife discovered she had cancer, he sorted out his problems the way many do — over a few drinks at the local saloon.
“That night I got drunk. More so than I ever used to. I came home, laid next to my wife, and realized how much time we have left,” Burton said as he sat on his bed and peered out the window, pausing with a green collectible bottle in his hand, remembering his wife who had passed eight years earlier. “I couldn’t handle the word ‘cancer.’ I never picked up another drink again.”
Unfortunately, at seventy-six, Burton sees more people leave his life than come into it. For close friends, old coworkers, and family members who have died, he bartends their funeral parties pro-bono.
“It’s my way of giving back,” he said. “Most everyone I’ve worked with is dead now.”
These days, when he’s not teaching or at estate sales looking for old bottles and cocktail ephemera, he’s spending time with his children and grandchildren. Burton’s always been a workhorse: early to rise, late to sleep. At one point in his career, he was simultaneously working at a nearby bar, doing consulting work for other operations, running a book publishing company, and teaching at the bartending school. Not much time left to be a father and husband.
“I’ve spent so much of my life working that I missed out on my children’s childhood,” Burton said. “So now I spend as much time I can making up for the lost time.”
Burton comes from a class where professionalism is paramount but a time when drinks were not as ornate or complex as they are in today’s cocktail craze. It was a time when service held more weight than flashy outfits, waxed mustaches, and grandstanding moves with drink tins. His history has been a key to his success. And while it’s no surprise for a bartender to be tipped a cool Benjamin from time to time, he’s been slipped the keys to a new Buick from one of his regulars at the old Flamingo Hotel. Instead of trading in the car, the customer would come in every two years and hand Burton the keys. The previous car would be passed down to another bartender.
“If you’re good with your customers, it’ll come back to you — trust my experience,” he said, with a roll of his hands and a snap of his fingers.
His commitment to service also led Burton to be the father figure in bringing the United States Bartenders’ Guild to San Francisco. The USBG is an organization of beverage service professionals dedicated to the continued refinement of the craft. At one point Burton would travel six hours down the coast to Long Beach to attend monthly guild meetings. After a while he figured that the city with three thousand places to eat and drink within its forty-nine square miles should have its own chapter.
“This industry these days has been watered down,” Burton said. “I believe in the guild because it’s professional, and we teach professionalism.”
San Francisco’s guild started out with just a handful of members and mushroomed to become the largest chapter in the nation. Some of today’s top bartenders owe their accolades to the formation of the San Francisco USBG. For Marcovaldo Dionysos and Jacques Bezuidenhout, two early pioneers of the city’s craft-cocktail boom, getting the USBG in order served as a catalyst for elevating their craft and careers. Both would go on to win competitions at the local and national levels.
“At first it was just a few voices crying out in the wilderness,” Dionysos said. “We wouldn’t have gotten this off the ground if it weren’t for John.”
The guild brought like-minded people together, providing a place for beer, wine, spirits, and cocktail education and expanded certifications. It even began offering health insurance options in an industry where workers seldom get it. San Francisco’s USBG also hosted competitions and brought more pride to the job.
“You can put this into your résumé, your business card,” Dionysos said. “It allows you to be a professional — and it means something.”
The guild opened the gates to the modern cocktail and ushered in the good drinks that are now found on just about every corner. These days, even some dive bars are making proper Rob Roys and daiquiris shaken with fresh lime juice.
Go back a decade, and a good drink was seldom found in San Francisco.
“We wanted a place where we could get a properly made Negroni without getting a weird look,” Bezuidenhout said. “We never thought it would get this far. It was his generation that helped our generation, and now we’re setting up the next.”
Burton continues to help future generations of bartenders. To this day, in a small portable at the back corner of a Santa Rosa industrial complex, there he is: standing behind the bar, shaking up drinks, and educating those interested in the business — just as he did when he first opened his doors thirty-eight years ago.
Interview by Rhys Alvarado. All photos of John Burton by Kelly Puleio.