In the summer of 1987, my cousin Joe took me to the Newport Jazz Festival at the Fingerlakes in upstate New York. It was there he introduced me to the music of Branford Marsalis. I was mesmerized, and thus began a lifelong appreciation of Marsalis’s music and his commentary. Had you told my 12-year-old self that decades later, not only would I be drinking bourbon with Branford, but sitting down to write his thoughts on America’s native spirit, there’s no chance I would have believed you.
To give further context, in my day job working for a not-for-profit jazz presenting & education organization, Branford Marsalis was my personal white whale. The one artist that alluded me year after year. It took me fifteen years, but I finally secured a one-night-only performance with his quartet in February 2015. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to have him back through on multiple occasions. Over the course of those interactions, I came to learn of his fondness for bourbon, which is shared by several members of his band.
In an effort to #DrinkCurious long before I joined the Bourbon & Banter team, I started bringing in bottles specifically for Branford whenever he played our venue. At first, it was Blanton's, which I knew was his go-to. He was into it long before everybody else was, which was evident the first time we talked about it because he had six bottles bunkered at his house. Or he did "until all these cats came over and started drinking it," he tells me, referring to his band. Next time through, I grabbed two store picks from St. Louis’s Wine & Cheese Place, a Four Roses Barrel Strength OESK & a Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. Both went over very well, Marsalis smiling when he saw the Four Roses. The KY Spirit prompted his bassist Eric Reavis to look at me and say “this is Wild Turkey?” Any prior thoughts about the brand, likely based on a drunken night as a teenager, were quickly dispelled.
I learned real quick that white liquor shit will kill you, it’s really not my thing.
Fast forward to April 2019. Marsalis and his quartet are starting up a tour in support of their newest release The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul with a couple nights at Jazz St. Louis. Barrell Dovetail & George Remus Reserve Series I & II were on tap for the group this time, with the Remus being a clear favorite, although Branford and the band were divided on which they preferred, Series I or Series II. Special thanks to Brad Duncan of MGP for bringing in the Remus for all to enjoy.
Branford was kind enough to sit down with me and share his thoughts on bourbon, spirits, and a lifelong philosophy that is best described as #DrinkCurious. I was surprised to learn that Marsalis didn’t start drinking regularly until he was 24 years old. “I didn't take to alcohol early in life, which is rare for a New Orleanian. Except for one brief bout. I was ten and I was at my uncle Delfaeyo’s house & he opened up a Schlitz. With me recently discovering my humor I blurted out ‘give me one of those!’ He says ‘you want one?’ I said yeah, he said okay and popped it. I took a sip and said ‘awe, this is terrible.’ He said ‘you’re going to drink every drop of it. You want to be a man you, you want to play big? You’re going to be big.’ I had to drink the whole thing. That cured me, I said whatever this shit is, I don’t want it.”
“When I was 15 I was in high school hanging out with some guys in my high school marching band. I went to a party and they were drinking Southern Comfort. I was seated. I was telling jokes, laughing, and drinking. The guys said ‘man do you drink a lot?’ I said ‘this is my first time.’ They said ‘you should be hammered by now,’ but I said ‘I’m good.’ I couldn’t believe it, I wondered what’s the big deal to drinking. Then it was time to leave and I stood up and everything disappeared. So clearly it was sitting in one place and when I moved, it moved.” After this episode, Marsalis’s mother didn’t speak to him for a week, and it was the extent of his drinking experience until he was 24 years old.
“I was in Europe and was offered some wine. I was half joking and I said ‘you know wine is a conspiracy to kill black people.’ Because the only thing I ever saw in my neighborhood was Mogen David 20/20 and ripple, so that’s my interpretation of wine. As I’m explaining to him what that is and what it looks like he says ‘yeah, we are totally not talking about the same thing. I think you should try this.’ So it’s sitting there and say okay, I’ll try it. The more I sipped it, it was really good. It was red, I wasn’t’ ready for the white wines yet. The next day I had some, and the next day, and the next day and I started to develop a taste for it.”
“I started to drink a lot of wine, but in 1984 Americans weren’t drinking a lot of wine. I stayed away from spirits until my 30’s. All my friends were drinking vodka & gins, particularly musicians. I learned real quick that white liquor shit will kill you, it’s really not my thing. The first thing that I tried of a whiskey nature was Scotch. The Scotch thing worked with me, it was really good. I started out like a lot of people with Glenfiddich, then I realized that’s really not what I should be drinking. People who know said try this, try that, try Auchentoshan, try Laphroaig, try Ardberg.” Marsalis continued to #DrinkCurious, but it wasn't until he was in his early forties that bourbon came into the picture.
"We played a gig in the early 2000s in Frankfurt, KY and across the street was a bourbon bar, and that was my first experience with bourbon. The shit was everywhere, they said ‘try whatever you want.' I said ‘I don’t know, why don’t you throw me a bone, throw me a starter, what do more people drink?’ They gave me Basil Hayden. I said ‘oh, nice!’ Then it’s like that same thing with Scotch, you talk to people who are real drinkers, not drunks, and the list comes. You should try Elijah Craig, etc….”
Marsalis then goes on to address wine & spirit reviews & reviewers. “My thing is, I was a Wine Spectator guy for a while, then I realized it’s paying to watch somebody else get something that you would like to get, but you’re not getting it. I’m paying somebody to tell me what to drink. I’m not them. They might think the shit is great, I might think it’s trash. So I started following the same advice I would tell people about music. People ask ‘how do you know it’s good?’ If you like it, then it’s good. If you continue to drink it, your taste buds will evolve and things that you think are good now you might not think are good 6 months from now, even a year from now. Which is the way music is.”
Marsalis shares the #DrinkCurious philosophy as well and pays it forward. “I was in London with Julian Joseph (British jazz pianist) and we were at this hotel, The Montcalm at the Brewery, and they have a really cool restaurant. I met Julian at the restaurant bar and sitting right there in front of me is a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 and Wild Turkey 81. I asked him ‘do you want the heavy stuff or the kinda-heavy stuff?’ He said ‘I really don’t drink bourbon that much, I want the heavy stuff.’ I ordered two 101’s with one ice cube in each. Julian says ‘this is amazing!” Then his brother comes in and he gets him to try it, then over a period of two days, we killed the bottle. That’s what we do.” When I tell him he’s an influencer, his reply is “well, I’m not going with that word. I’m a sharer. There’s no guarantee they’ll like it, but just try it.”
The afternoon Branford and I sat down to talk bourbon, I led him through a tasting of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel (Wine & Cheese Place store pick), Maker’s Mark Private Select (Llewelyn’s Pub, St. Louis), 1792 Full Proof (TWCP store pick) & a barrel strength Four Roses Small Batch I had put together mingling a 9-year OBSV, a 10-year OBSQ & a 9.5-year OESK. Coming out of that tasting, with no food (sorry Branford!), he replies "I like the shit with bite in it, the Four Roses and Wild Turkey. Those are my friends. When I’m home, my regular drink is Blanton’s. On the road, Bulleit is always safe.”
For his desert island bottles, Marsalis has a hard time initially being confined to a handful of bottles. He thought about some of the best bottles he’s had and a particular one sticks out: Parker’s Heritage #3, Golden Anniversary. A friend of his manager gave the band a bottle of that after an event, but because he was on the road, he couldn’t take it home with him. “We treated that like it was some garden variety piece of shit, we killed it in an hour backstage. Justin (Faulkner, his drummer) looked it up and said ‘this is $2,500 a bottle!”
"Pappy is known for the wrong reasons, it's like the Tesla of bourbon. It's really good but the people who crave it don't know that it's good."
He doesn't get caught up in the rarity of a bottle, or if it's a limited edition or even the specific details behind it. He either likes it or he doesn't. He likes Pappy Van Winkle, but "Pappy is known for the wrong reasons, it's like the Tesla of bourbon. It's really good but the people who crave it don't know that it's good."
So the next time you see Branford Marsalis come to town, make sure to check out the band. Not only is it one of the most incredible musical experiences you’ll ever have, but if it’s a club situation, you might luck out at the bar and share a pour at the end of the night. Just remember to #DrinkCurious.
Branford Marsalis's Desert Island Whiskeys
Parker’s Heritage #3 Golden Anniversary
Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year
Blanton’s Single Barrel
Four Roses Small Batch
If you enjoyed learning about Branford's love of bourbon, you might want to check out our interview with jazz trumpeter - Sean Jones.