Dean Burnett, the legendary bartender at The Townsend Hotel, treats everyone like they’re the rich and famous. Find out how to make his signature Manhattan.
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography by Viviana Pernot
Bartenders have plenty of stories. If you’ve told one to bartender Dean Burnett of The Townsend Hotel’s Rugby Grille — maybe after one too many Rugby Old-Fashioneds, and especially if it was a little bit scandalous — don’t worry, your secret is safe with him.
When asked to spill juicy stories, he’s extremely tight-lipped and won’t dish any dirt on the rich and famous who’ve come through the doors of the tony Birmingham hotel or The Corner, the late-night hot spot where he was a fixture for several years. He has plenty of memories from sporting events such as the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002 when the Red Wings were crowned champions; musicians in in town, including one of his favorites; and other celebrities from Michael Jackson to Mike Tyson, but he won’t tell this SEEN writer any details.
Whether the customer is a Birmingham socialite, business executive or athlete, Burnett treats them all the same. And that’s why people connect with him. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, nearly every seat at the bar in the Rugby Grille is full, but he attentively listens and serves each and every one, joking around with a couple of ladies sharing a glass of wine or coming up with a cocktail for the guest who likes vodka but isn’t sure what she wants.
Bartending is all about “creating moments,” he says, “and creating a connection with people.” He’ll have people who celebrated their wedding anniversary at the Townsend and remember him years later because he made that moment special for them, he says.
A bartender for 40 years, Burnett, 60, has been with the Birmingham hotel since it opened 30 years ago. He first came to the Townsend from Warren, where he worked at a bar called Mingles at the time and had customers who worked at the advertisement agency Campbell Ewald. Impressed with his customer service, they encouraged him to find a job in Birmingham where they lived, he says. Shortly thereafter, he became one of the hotel’s original employees. The east-sider (he lives in Warren and is from Mount Clemens) came and never left.
“He’s a hallmark of the hotel,” says Jérôme Fosset, director of food and beverage at the Townsend. “We have customers … say, ‘Oh, I’ve known Dean for 25 years, 26 years. Dean knows my children.’ ”
Fosset says Burnett is a “true bartender” with a “friendly tone and gentle touch.”
“He’s got a lot of charm and gentle charisma,” Fosset says. “He’s a little bit laid-back but connects with people really well, and he’s a good listener.”
One thing he’s not is a“mixologist,” who whips up over-the-top drinks and sets glasses on fire. “You have guys who are great ‘showtenders,’ they’re flashy and all that, but that’s not really my style,” Burnett says. “People want consistency and that’s what I’ve liked about here and what I feel people like about me.”
As a bartender for decades, he’s seen a lot of trends come and go. But at The Townsend, customers’ tastes are pretty classic. Wine is always a popular pick, with 35 to 40 wines available by the glass and hundreds of bottles on the wine list. As for cocktails, customers go for vodka, scotches and bourbon.
Manhattans are especially popular these days, he says, and at the Rugby, their version is served from a barrel.
When it comes to concocting drinks, Burnett has lost track of how many he knows how to make or the sheer amount he’s shaken and stirred over the years. But if you can describe it to him, chances are he’ll be able to recreate it, such as a tequila drink a group of women lunching on the patio requested.
As for himself, his tastes are pretty simple: bourbon.
When asked what’s kept him at the Townsend all these years, Burnett says it’s the customers. “The guests at this hotel allow me to be here all this time. (My long tenure is) because of them.” Also, “my wife won’t let me retire. I gotta keep paying the bills,” he laughs.
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes cherry bitters
1 ounce Dolin Rouge vermouth
2 ounces whiskey such as Bulleit Rye Maker’s Mark
2 Luxardo cherries
In a rocks glass add the bitters, vermouth and whiskey. Add ice and stir well. Garnish with Luxardo cherries.
Watch how to make the drink:
The Rugby Grille
100 Townsend St., Birmingham