The freeways in Los Angeles merge and swerve, connecting each neighborhood, both fast and slow. The 5 and the 2 and the 101 and the 10 and the 110 all lead us to each other. I exit the 101 off 4th Street, making my way toward Downtown L.A.’s Arts District, where I circle the block several times in search of parking before lucking out. I check the street signs three times, like any good Angeleno, before crossing Traction Avenue and making my way to the second floor of a nondescript building. This one likely used to be a warehouse, as many in the area once were, before becoming the commercial space it is today. It’s had a long history of its own as a native Angeleno, its worn brick seeing the many faces of eras past.
The Mulholland Distilling office is located behind an unmarked door, and inside is a well-designed, comfortable, curated space with a bar, large hanging art pieces, and beautiful furniture from various decades with many stories to tell. Each piece—although unique—complements the others. The warm afternoon lighting pours in through the large glass gridded windows, highlighting a long, wood desk and worn leather chair cozied in the corner. A record player quietly spins the sounds of jazz as I look across the bar to its eclectic collection of spirits adorning shelves. In order to be entertained in this salon-like environment, one either needs to provide vinyl, a book, or a bottle of alcohol.
Walton Goggins and Matthew Alper—Mulholland Distilling’s founder—met twenty-two years ago. At the time, Goggins was dating his then-significant other, a camera assistant. While working on a movie, she came home after a long day on set, “talking about this fucking guy, Matt Alper, all the time,” Goggins laughs. After six weeks of hearing this name, Goggins drove his girlfriend to a restaurant on La Brea to have lunch with Alper. When Alper pulled up and got out of his car, Goggins thought to himself, “‘You know what? He is cool. I’d like to meet that guy.’ And while the relationship didn’t work out, the friendship did,” Goggins says.
Their lives have since intersected many times over the years, from having children six months apart, to Goggins inheriting Alper’s daughter’s bassinet. Now, over twenty years later, they’re working together on operating their spirits brand from this Arts District salon.
From Alabama, Goggins—the brand’s partner, spokesperson, and an actor known for roles in The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained, Lincoln and FX’s Justified—has lived in Los Angeles for twenty-seven years. Like many who came before him, Los Angeles realized a dream for him. The city offered him a career in acting; it offered him a family. “This is my home. My wife is from Los Angeles, and my son was born here,” Goggins tells me. His son will grow up here, much like Alper did.
“My grandparents came here at the turn of the century, and my parents were born here in L.A.,” Alper says. His daughter was born here, now a third generation Angeleno.
“That’s part of the reason why this brand is cool. You have an Angeleno who understands it from one perspective—from being here with no agenda. And someone who came seeking what he’s found,” Alper continues. “We have these two completely different approaches to L.A., but we both love the city in a way that others probably don’t understand.”
I understand. It’s no secret: I love Los Angeles. With its many downfalls comes grit, beauty, possibility and adventure. And when you want to write a love letter to Los Angeles, your ode might be one of many things—an article, a film, or a bottle of whiskey.
From concept to fruition, Mulholland Distilling has been a reality for nearly five years, selling whiskey, vodka and gin. Prior to its inception, Alper was working in the film industry, and was well respected in his career while operating the camera for such films as The Avengers, Crazy Stupid Love, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Fast & Furious, and more. But when his daughter was a year-and-a-half, Alper was on location away from his family. Although there were fun special effects explosions occurring during this shoot, while he was on FaceTime with his daughter he had a moment where he realized, “This is not the life I want to choose anymore,” he tells me. “I had a great career, and I loved almost every minute of it. But it was time to make a change.”
Serendipitously, Alper met a distiller from North Carolina at a party who posed the question, “Y’all drink a lot out here, but there’s no L.A. spirit. Why is that?” This question triggered an epiphany for Alper: he should provide a spirit representative of Los Angeles. “Something that could embody what L.A. is and who I am,” he says.
While Alper and Goggins’ stories have been woven for over two decades, Goggins had independently been asked to be the spokesmen for several other whiskey companies due to his involvement in the television program Justified, “because of how Justified anthropologically explored American culture through the consumption of spirits,” Goggins tells me. But he waited for Alper’s vision to come to fruition—something Alper had privately hoped would happen. “I’m a fan of his, and a friend of his,” Goggins tells me of Alper. “I’m invested in him as a human being.” When Goggins first learned of Alper’s idea, “We started working together almost three years ago. It was the perfect fit.”
The space we are in today is an extension of their personalities. “We’re not in the business of selling spirits so much as we are in cultivating an experience and relationships,” says Goggins. “From what’s inside the bottle to designing the bottle itself and the packaging, everything relates to that; it’s telling that story. We wanted to create a space that provided that experience of who we are and how we see ourselves and experience the world around us.”
Much like the city of Los Angeles, the Mulholland Distilling office is a melding of concepts; it’s a modern-day salon where those inside and outside of the spirits industry can gather to create, to bond, and to connect. “For us, it was never going to be desks in a room,” says Goggins. “It’s a place where we can come together, imbibe, and share stories.”
Much like filmmaking, spirits are a vehicle to share stories. Like the bartender listening and relieving those of the weight of their sorrows, or like friends catching up over cocktails, a story is the currency traded. “At the end of the day, Matt and I have dedicated our lives to storytelling. That’s what I’ve done,” says Goggins, referencing his acting career. “Whether I succeed or whether I fail, both of us have pursued a life of story. And for me, that doesn’t just happen in front of a camera. It happens when nobody’s looking.”
Goggins is constantly on a search for a new story. “A very good part of that is imbibing with people from all different walks of life, from all different cultures and a number of different countries,” Goggins says. “I get no greater joy—outside of my son, my friends, and what I do for a living—than being in a place that is familiar or unfamiliar to me, ordering a drink, and meeting someone who I don’t know and conversing with them about their life.” Alcohol can be the means to connect. Like a salon at the turn of the century, where the literati might have shared their newest works in a speakeasy off 7th Street, this space feels comfortable enough to do the same.
Whether wanting to be an actor, or doctor, or entrepreneur, “You come to Los Angeles because anything’s possible. You can still dream,” says Goggins. And if you can pursue your dreams—your freedom—with your friends, even better.