Walton Goggins Asked Me to Try His Booze Then Wouldn’t Let Me Taste It
On the night after Donald Trump was elected president, nerves were frayed across the country, not to mention the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. So when Walton Goggins slid his wiry frame into the worn leather booth across from me at Baby Blues BBQ in West Hollywood, I didn’t know what to expect. After all, this is a guy who elevated the portrayal of loose cannons to an art form in memorable roles in The Shield, Justified, Sons of Anarchy, Vice Principals, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight.
“Shit is going crazy, right?” he says.
“There’s a weird energy in the air,” I replied. Or was it lack of energy? The place was packed, but a preternatural stillness hung over everything.
“We need to start drinking immediately,” Goggins intoned, with dire certainty.
"We brought supplies," added Matthew Alper, Goggins's partner in Mulholland Distilling, the newly minted spirits company they were here to promote.
Goggins and Alper had brought the three spirits in the Mulholland Distilling portfolio—Vodka, American Whiskey, and New World Gin—along with a few bottles of Ottimino Zinfandel and Square Peg Pinot Noir (which is produced by Alper’s brother). We started in on the wine, along with a surfeit of savory smoked meats, grilled vegetables and sweet cornbread.
“This is a way of life where I’m from,” says Goggins, holding a baby back rib aloft. And though he’s talking about barbecue (the man hails from Lithia Springs, Georgia), I can’t help but feel like he means the entire heady stew of conversation, animal protein and strong drink we're enjoying.
Despite the undeniable excellence of the ribs, we couldn’t help the talk from turning to politics. Thankfully, we quickly determined this was a miserable subject. Changing course, I asked about the genesis of Mulholland Distilling, but Goggins insisted we hold off talking shop until after we’d finished with the more important business at hand (i.e. eating and drinking).
Turns out he’d just returned from a trip to Europe—first to Cannes, where he did press for an upcoming History Channel drama series called Six, then to Barcelona “to just walk and talk and listen—to wander really.”
“I love that city because you can drink vermouth on the rocks with carbonated water at any time of the day and nobody’ll look at you sideways,” he said of the cosmopolitan capital of Spain’s Catalonia region.
Alper’s a second-generation Angeleno who worked for many years as a Hollywood cameraman. He and Goggins met and became fast friends in the late ‘90s. In the mid-aughts, Alper began building a serious spirits collection, and as his appreciation for the craft behind the bottles grew, an idea took shape: a booze brand that both he and L.A. could call its own.
In 2013 he approached Goggins with a business plan, and after three years of blood, sweat and booze, here we are in WeHo with three shiny bottles of government-approved hooch labeled Mulholland Distilling.
Goggins and Alper’s booze relationship functions along similar lines to their filmic relationship: Alper works behind the scenes while Goggins is more of the public face. He’s the one you send out to do publicity and press tastings. But here’s the trouble: Walton Goggins is terrible at publicity and press tastings.
It’s not that he’s off-putting. Quite the opposite, Goggins is warm, welcoming and interested. So much so that every time I try to steer the conversation back to their booze, I find we're talking about vision quests, the fundamental awesomeness of Robert Duvall or the best places in Philly to get a cheesesteak.
Alper is no better, I’m afraid. When I suggest we check out their company’s wares, Alper says we should wait, so as to avoid being disrespectful to all the fine wine and barbecue we’ve been blessed with. My meat sweats were already starting, so I was in no position to argue.
“Besides, there’s still a full bottle of Zinfandel left,” Goggins said as he topped off my wine glass. Then he added, “Hey, have you ever gone backpacking in India?”
Making another vain attempt to dig deeper on the brand, I picked up a bottle and examined it. Simple, unadorned. “Mulholland Distilling, American Whiskey” is stenciled onto the bottle in a white handwriting font. On the side of the bottle there’s a quote: “In good times and bad, all will drink. If not water, then make it Mulholland.”
The slogan embodies the way these two seem to operate. It’s the opposite of the hard sell, essentially translating to: “Hey guys, let’s all drink some water, huh? I mean hydration is important. Everyone good? No one thirsty? Excellent. Oh hey, almost forgot, would anyone like some booze?”
But here is the final proof that Walton Goggins is terrible at press tastings: We never got around to cracking the gin, the vodka or the whiskey that night. You read that correctly. I met up with two booze makers, for the express purpose of tasting their booze, which they had brought with them, and we did not taste their product. This is either the softest sell ever perpetrated or (I think more likely) two guys who care far more about being in the moment than they do about the finer points of marketing and promotion.
For my part, I was a mite shaken up. It felt like I'd just been defeated at booze writing. By two people who weren’t even playing. This would not stand.
A few nights later we regrouped and made a proper run through the portfolio. I even took notes, lest anyone get the impression that I am anything less than a member in good standing of the International Drinking Press. Here are my pure, unexpurgated thoughts. I normally wouldn’t do this, but I felt the need to document this strange phenomenon.
Distilled from 100-percent non-GMO corn, which really ought to matter to me more than it does. QUESTION: Am I a terrible person?
Lively, with pepper and mint flavors. Smells like a forest after a rainstorm. WG keeps sneaking peeks at my notes. Says that description “sounds like a Summer’s Eve ad.” What does he know?
What is a GMO anyhow? And how am I supposed to oppose one?
Feels like I should be drinking this vodka over ice with soda water and cucumbers in a spa in Palm Springs; on second thought, L.A.-based vodka belongs in an L.A.-centric cocktail. Ordering a Moscow Mule!
MA wants to know why I’m yelling. WG tells me about a natural spring that runs through the small town where he grew up. It’s said to have magical curative powers, and people come from miles around to drink from it. Ask WG if that has anything to do with inspiring Mulholland Distilling. It doesn’t.
NEW WORLD GIN
Goes very nicely in a Martinez. Robust citrus flavor right up front. From Persian limes used in blending or just residual taste from Moscow Mules?
Soothing floral and vanilla notes would calm even L.A. traffic-frayed nerves. WG peeking again. Says drinking and driving don’t belong in the same sentence. I explain that I took an Uber here.
MA says that GMOs are scary, and that opposition to them is not just another douchey rich people’s affectation like gluten. I feel better about myself. Screw you, GMOs! And glutens! Just in case.
Caught WG staring into the middle distance, humming “Paradise City.”
I remark to WG about the vanilla, juniper and coriander notes in the gin. He asks how my latest book is selling.
Distilled in Indiana, aged in Kentucky, finished at Mulholland’s facility in Downey, CA.
Mash bill = 94 percent corn, 4 percent rye, 2 percent malted barley.
Flavor-wise it’s a Tarantino film, there’s so much going on all at once: dried fruit, butterscotch candy, hay and sweet corn.
WG says my Tarantino analogy is pretentious.
This stuff would go great in a Manhattan.
WG makes fun of MA for looking like the singer for The National.
WG tells a wild story about the first time he met Slash at some Eyes Wide Shut-like party in Hollywood.
WG conducts an informal survey of the people around us on the best cup of coffee in LA.
Somebody brings me a Manhattan. Does my notebook have magic powers?
Knowing my editor would have certain expectations [Oh, don’t strain yourself on my account. -Ed], I tried putting on my journalist hat one last time. I asked Walton what inspired him to get into the booze business.
“You mean, beyond the booze part?” he replied.
Is he going to win again? It feels like he’s going to win again.
“Ok the truth is this,” he said. “I wanted to broaden my creative footprint. Look at my face. This thing isn’t gonna sell toothpaste. Hell, I don't want to sell anything. It's the thing I'm looking for... the experience.”
Confession: At this point in the conversation, I am ready to buy a case of X-Treem Tartar Control GoggiBrite™ from this man.
“Spirits make sense to me,” he continued. “But I’m not interested in experiencing an altered state of mind in a vacuum. Whiskey, gin, vodka, tequila are lubricants, which when used responsibly allow us to become vulnerable. That’s what I look for in my work. That's what I look for in my relationships with friends.”
And you know what? I believe him. I genuinely believe Walton Goggins got into the booze business because he appreciates the ecumenical virtues of fine fortified beverages. He's no master of the soft sell. Hell, he wasn’t trying to sell anything at all. He did this because he thought it would be different. And fun.
“For me, consuming spirits has always been a facilitator for something more sublime, something more communal. It’s a conduit to what's going on behind the mask we all wear, a way to access what's really going on”
Which is to say, Walton and Matt won again. Thankfully, so did I.
Dan Dunn secretly believes that GMOs are alien spaceships. Check out Dan’s latest book, American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man’s Blues. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram