Bill Murray Shares His Best Drinking Stories: "What Is It About Alcohol?"

Bill Murray - Fixing a drink -H 2019
Margaret Pattillo Photography

The comedic icon known for part-time bartending and photobombing weddings explains his relationship with booze and favorite places to get a martini in New York as his Slovenia vodka brand expands.

In a career spanning 45 years and 90 feature films, Bill Murray has managed to age like a fine wine, though he prefers vodka. He loves it so much, in fact, that in 2010, the Oscar nominee (for Lost in Translation) and part-time bartender (at his son Homer's Brooklyn restaurant, 21 Greenpoint) invested an undisclosed sum in his own brand. Called Slovenia, the buckwheat-derived vodka carried at Mondrian Hotel Sky Bar and Chez Jay in Santa Monica (and recently added to the offerings at Upstairs at the Ace Hotel), has "this viscosity that stays on your tongue — it makes it slightly different," Murray tells THR.

For a couple of years before signing on to "this vodka thing," the comic hung out at longtime chef buddy Peter Kelly's Yonkers restaurant X2O with his business-partners-to-be: "I don't know how Peter got to know all these characters from Slovenia," he says, admitting that he was initially dubious. Upon Kelly's approach, Murray responded, "'I dunno. I don't know anything [about vodka]. But it's a really good vodka, and I tasted it against others. Peter Kelly explained it to me because he's a cook, he knows things."

Murray eventually wanted to learn more about the operation. "I'm only really good at one business," he says, "I was not a desirable employee in the number of jobs that I had as a young man, until I found the career that I've managed to do OK in. And the secret of my business for me was learning how to tell a story. And as much as I liked the Slovenians, the vodka and my friend Peter Kelly, I didn't know how to talk about it." Murray visited the country, noting: "They have women ski jumpers. They're crazy about sausage. They're outdoorsy folk. I visited the stables of these famous Lipizzan horses and I was able to be the godfather of a newborn Slovenian horse. There are only two people that have gotten to be godparents, Queen Elizabeth and myself. So that was kind of fun." His other top memory? "We went to Melania Trump's hometown — she's from the sticks. They had created a 'Melania Cake' in her honor [as] the official dessert. I've got to give her credit, it's an amazing cake. I did steal one and brought it all the way back, slightly smashed. I gave it to someone, I don't remember who, and said, 'Here, this is the only Melania Cake in the United States of America.'"

Throwing down money on a spirit distilled in a semi-obscure region of Eastern Europe aligns with Murray's genial rep of predictable unpredictability. "Everyone I know has a Bill Murray story," actor pal George Clooney, who sold his Casamigos tequila in 2017 for $1 billion, tells THR. "There are YouTube videos and documentaries about him crashing a wedding reception or a graduation party. All of them are accurate, but none of them tell the whole story. Everyone loves Bill, but what's so special about him is he loves them all back." Here, Murray delves into his drinking history.

Drinking at the Globes

I was at the Golden Globes this year, and they were serving Moët Rosé, and it wasn't matching my excitement level. So I got to go backstage early because I was presenting an award. Actually, they call you backstage 40 minutes before you have to be there, because they want you to learn your lines. Which I wasn't going to do because I wasn't going to say what they wanted me to say, anyway. I was just back there and having a great time, meeting people I never see. It's fun to be with people like Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman, guys that you just don't run into — you do not crash into these guys. They had George Clooney's Casamigos tequila back there. That's what I switched to, and it was much more fun.

My (Chill) Drunken History

I suppose it was mood swings that got me into the world of booze. Originally, it was peer pressure in high school. That's what you're supposed to do at 16, you're supposed to drink beer at that point. It is sort of a passage, an adolescent-to-adult passage that people do. I didn't wear turtlenecks and a scarf and drink a certain kind of alcohol back then. I came up in a time when people were less involved with alcohol. The only wine that anyone would drink was at rock festivals, where it was something brutal like Boone's Farm or Gallo in a jug. It wasn't for taste, it was involved to calm you down, smooth you out a little bit.

I got more serious about drinking when I was a starving actor. I didn't have two nickels to rub together. I had a limited entertainment budget when I was starting in Chicago at Second City. I was making pizza, and when I'd get to work, I'd have to start making the dough for the night's pizza. I was so hungry that I would eat the dough, which still had active yeast, so it would expand in my stomach. I would eat until I was full. Except the pizza kept getting bigger in my stomach. It wasn't the most horrible thing in the world, but it was my version of poverty: eating raw dough and exploding my stomach. At the time, there was a tequila that you could get called El Chico that was $3.49 a fifth, and I had a magnetic salt shaker that you could put on your car dashboard. I didn't really have the knife or finances to buy lime. So I just bought the lime squeezy bottle. That was pretty much date night.

I had these holiday parties in New York and when I first had them, I served new Beaujolais wine. I thought that was what you do: You leave a big barrel of it outside and you drink it in 36 degrees or something like that. But in order to make a party go for a really long time, a friend of mine said, "You're going to have to raise the octane level." So, I don't know whose idea it was — I'd like to take all the credit, as usual — but I thought, "Let's have an ice luge," one of these things where you pour the vodka into it and it flies down through the ice and around and around in a corkscrew and it comes out and you drink it. We've done that for the last few years and it's always some sort of a silly carved ice thing — like carved ice things always are. It's a festive way to have a drink.

A Martini Is Just Very Efficient

I had a job where I worked with director John Byrum for The Razor's Edge and we would work really long days and he liked to have a cold vodka at the end of the day. We shot in England, France and India, and the one thing that those places had in common was that you could get vodka in all of them. We were in league on this film and because we were working so hard all day long, and when he said, "I think it's time to stop," you felt like a horse going back to the barn — now you get a bag of oats and a cold drink in a glass. It was a Pavlovian thing. The day officially ended and you could just relax. I found that after a long day of effort, a martini was just very efficient.

Also, we had this crazy producer who was a very funny, low-budget English producer, whom we got because he could get us in under-budget. He would bribe the crew with beer, that was his thing. Because English crews, they drink beer. He would get them to work an extra three hours for a case of beer. He drank vodka, but he knew that crews drank beer.

When we did work in the studio, in London, they had a one-hour break for lunch. And the food wasn't very special. They had a bar in the studio that we were in. And most of the crew went directly to the bar and drank for the entire hour and then came back and worked. That was interesting. Back then, it was what everyone did. Everyone that wasn't in makeup and wardrobe went directly to the bar — even some who were. They smoked cigarettes and drank for the entire hour.

Where the Great NYC Vodkas Are

In its heyday, the Russian Tea Room in New York was a wonderful place to walk into — a magical world. There'd be spectacular people from all over eating there, and it was lavish. It was like an era-of-the-czar setting. For me, as a young actor, I could actually get in, appreciate and afford this place, all at once. They had all the great vodkas. And it would come in those little tiny carafes, in ice. This was really being taken care of.

I love to get a drink that's made in that fashion, in a small bowl of crushed ice, at Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel in New York. That's a place with a three-piece orchestra playing in this crazy, cool jewel-box of a bar, with people who are talking to each other and not screaming. That, to me, is the best drink in New York. To have that feeling of "This is my destiny, this is living."

Where to Eat and Drink in L.A.

There's a couple of places when I think of really being comfortable in Los Angeles. I used to like to spend a lot of time in downtown before downtown was popular like it is now. But in Santa Monica around Chautauqua Boulevard, just before you get to the ocean, there's a place called Caffé Delfini, where they make Italian food, pasta. I've eaten there for many years — it was better than anybody's pasta that I'd ever had. Finding great Italian food in Los Angeles back in the day was very hard — especially if you lived in New York, you didn't even think about eating Italian food in L.A. The owner was just this wonderful guy. And he had great wine. We would go into this place, and we didn't look at the menu

I used to have an old Ferrari, this Ferrari that I bought accidentally — a black one, a '66. Nobody cared about it. I remember one night pulling up to Caffé Delfini and he looked out the window and went, [Italian accent] "Ferrari!" Once I ordered, I said, "My food's not coming for a while. Wanna go take it for a spin?" And he looked at me like I just said it was OK to date my sister. He took off and didn't come back for an hour — it was like Ferris Bueller's Day Off — and he came back in like he just had ridden a horse without a saddle. He came back in the place lathered. It was never the same for me in that restaurant ever since. I went to a different level of understanding with my fellow man. But that's still a good place to eat.

I haven't been to L.A. much lately, and when I do, I've been staying at a friend's place over on Sunset, so I haven't gone to Santa Monica at all. But all those restaurants by Chautauqua, like Patrick's, were all stuck in the '60s. Really stuck. I'll make a point to go back. I've had some really great times there. I used to take only people I liked. I never took anyone for business. When business people say, "Let's have lunch together," I always say no. You wanna talk business, we'll talk business. You wanna have lunch, we'll have lunch. But if you do them both together, you're not doing either one justice.

I've also had a lot of martinis at the Sunset Tower, and there's something so interesting about the history, of it being the old mobster Bugsy Siegel's apartment turned into a hotel.

On Drinking in Charleston, Where I Have a Place

I try all of the bars. Believe me, Charleston is a very serious cocktail town. I've had some friends here that have gone to great lengths to prove that to me. The one I like is at a place called the Cassique Golf Club. They make a drink called the Lion's Tale, and I've asked for it in other places around the country and they try to re-create it, but you need Jamaican dram to make it. It's a bourbon-based drink and it's really, really good. Also, the bar at the Spectator Hotel is really nice.

My Spirits Tours

Even when I'm not drinking vodka or tequila really, really cold, I'm drinking it with lots and lots of ice. By having it with ice, you're hydrating and diluting at the same time. Even bourbon — I took the Jim Beam tour in Clermont, Kentucky, and when we made Stripes, we used the exterior of Jim Beam's rickhouses [storage spaces for whisky barrels] as a stand-in for Czechoslovakia. They gave us a taste of something that the tasters drink. It's a product of the still, watered down to 20 proof. This is how the master distiller drinks it, so you can recognize the separate grains that go into it. And it really had an unusually good taste, you could quaff it. You could let it roll around on your tongue. To this day, that is how I like to drink bourbon. I like to make it really cold and really wet, I water it down so that you can taste the subtle parts of it.

I've met legendary bourbon makers like the Van Winkles, and they're very generous about letting you drink with them, with tasting barrels and things like that. I've had a couple of unusual, nice bourbon experiences. The people are real casual; they're not sloppy. They drink it because they really appreciate the distinction of a really quality product.

About "Make it Suntory time" [from the famous scene in Lost in Translation], it was Sofia Coppola who wrote that. That was her idea. And the Japanese are so artistic and they really do know quality in every realm. They make great clothes, great furniture, great food. The people making the clothes go through incredible lengths to find fabrics that are unusually perfect. That's what they do with their whisky. Their whisky did not stand out back then like it does now. They've really gone after it. They want to be in the conversation of the best drinks in the world. The whisky is now like a collector's item. I crash into it every now and then.

A Philosophy of Drinking

People always say, "What is it about alcohol?" Well, it's liberating. People are sort of afraid of other people. People fear other people, sometimes. Often. For one reason or another, it's their own insecurities. And alcohol breaks down that wall. Especially the first drink or so, really awakens you. And if you can take that awakening and stay with it, you can have a really interesting night, and life.

You can see why there were festivals way back in ancient Greece: We're going to see some part of ourselves that we don't see ordinarily. We're going to release something, some part of us that's ordinarily kept bottled up, so to speak.

Bartending 101

My son Homer's restaurant, 21 Greenpoint, just got its second Michelin Bib [Gourmand award] in two years. So he's really made a success of it. And I bartended there, but I'm not up for any prizes. People like giving me tips, which I thought was pretty funny — cash tips. There were two of us bartending and we counted the money at the end of the night; I didn't get any. I don't know how that happened.

I don't mind bartending. When people need a hand, I feel like I'm deputized. You can encourage people to pace themselves. You're sort of like a jockey in a funny way. My most confident thing was pouring people shots of anything. Because it was slammed, to stop and make a cocktail there would have resulted in a small riot. I was just pouring as much as I could. But it was a lot of work. You have to be pretty attentive. You can't lose track of yourself as a bartender. It was more difficult than I would have imagined. People say that you're like a psychologist. I did that on the fly. You see people manifesting some sort of need to relax or change what they're thinking or feeling. For me it was a challenge — it was like a Jeopardy game of being a host.

You need to take care of people no matter what — snowstorm, stoves are out, plumbing problem. You can tell the quality of a restaurant by the vibration of it. I remember Homer saying how happy it made him to see people eat the food that he had cooked. I never really understood that kind of thing as a young man. But I understand it now. It doesn't exist at all unless you have a powerfully developed service muscle.

My Drinking Buddies

I have a friend that I've had for a long time named Mitch Glazer, who is a screenwriter in L.A. He kind of operates on a martini. It's the end-of-workday ritual for him, when we have a freewheeling conversation about people and ideas. When you're with someone who's not drinking to get drunk, but to reflect and get deeper, it's like a masseuse who opens up your body and works through the tension. He's someone that I enjoy vodka with more than anyone. [Chef] Peter Kelly as well. One's a California reflection, and the other's in New York.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

April 12, 7:50 a.m. The byline on this story has been updated to correct the spelling of writer Brad Japhe's name.