We Spent the Day with Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston
It's just before noon on a crisp winter in the San Fernando Valley. I'm standing in the parking lot of an Encino strip mall when an alabaster white 1990 Range Rover Defender rolls up to my right. On the driver side door is a decal of two donkeys flanking an agave plant, appearing above the words, "Dos Hombres." The door opens to reveal the two men, whose famous faces are instantly recognizable even behind their K95 masks.
An enthusiastic Aaron Paul pops out of the driver's seat, wearing a black beanie. He is joined by his good friend and former Breaking Bad co-star Bryan Cranston, who could be confused for a lab technician with his white button-down and professorial countenance. Through five seasons of the television drama, the duo antagonized each other as uneasy associates in the meth manufacturing business. They combined for seven Emmy Awards along the way. Now, in a classic case of life imitating art, they've again partnered up as pushers—albeit of a far less nefarious adulterant.
In 2019, Paul and Cranston launched their own brand of the agave spirit, sourced from the remote village of San Luis del Río in Oaxaca, Mexico, under the expertise of their mezcal maker: third-generation mezcalero Gregorio Velasco Luis. "I've never started my own business before, so this is all very exciting for me," said Paul.
It's also been a very informative endeavor for both actors. Paul and Cranston are entrants into an incredibly crowded field of celebrity spirits. In the tequila space alone, there are actors, athletes, singers and fashion icons already vying for shelf space. Just like their fictional counterparts, they've had to leverage a sophisticated distribution network. In the U.S. booze business it's referred to as the three-tier system: liquid goes from producer to dedicated distributor before it can reach retail shops. So for bottles to move, Paul and Cranston have learned, they must encourage demand from consumers and coax interest among liquor store owners, all to convince distributors that theirs is a product worth spreading.
Contrary to popular belief, not all of these celebrity brands are guaranteed to go the way of George Clooney's Casamigos. In fact, many of them flounder. The ones that rise rely on heavy lifting by the stars themselves—which brings us to this commercial stretch of suburban Los Angeles on a Monday morning. Paul and Cranston are servicing existing accounts (parading from one Bevmo! to the next, signing bottles, shaking hands, posing for Instagram photos), while intermittently attempting to win over some new business.
The two men enter Encino Park Liquor off of Ventura Boulevard, introducing themselves to the manager, Wilson, while scanning the shelves for their product. "Do you carry Dos Hombres here?" asks Cranston. Wilson shakes his head no. "Oh, man. Well you should. We're the co-founders, you should try some."
As Cranston signs a bottle for him, Paul leans poetic on the virtues of the liquid within— explaining the artisanal methodology behind its production and touting the expertise of mezcalero Velasco Luis.
"You have to believe in the product," says Paul. "I don't wanna be pushing something that I'm not completely obsessed with."
Underscoring this sentiment is the readily observable fact that these two genuinely enjoy each other's company. It's an almost-bizarre dynamic for any diehard fan of the show to behold, given the constant friction of their fictional friendship.
"We had such an incredible experience shooting Breaking Bad," Paul explains on our way to the next liquor store. "Having this relationship blossom through the years; it's not always like that. You hope that it is. Maybe you stay in touch, but most of the time you don't. We were blessed to have him as our number one on the call sheet. He was such a perfect leader, and he became my mentor really early on."
Not long after the finale in 2013, Cranston was already floating the idea of working on another project. He suggested a play or a film of some sort. Paul countered that it was a little too soon, "because everyone is just going to see us as [those same characters] whenever we're together."
Kind of like how Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio had to wait ten years after Titanic before working together on Revolutionary Road, I point out.
"Exactly right," Paul laughs. "I'm more Kate, and he's more like Leo."
He navigates afternoon traffic on the 101 freeway to arrive at the Bevmo! parking lot in Sherman Oaks. Before entering the store Paul notices a middle-aged couple on their way in to do some shopping. He asks them if they're mezcal drinkers and the wife reluctantly admits she's never even heard of mezcal. Without missing a beat, Cranston jumps at the opportunity for a hand-sell. He holds up the Dos Hombres, distilled entirely from Agave angustifolia, he explains … Better known as espadin. Ten minutes later that same couple exits with their own purchased bottle—signed, of course.
Meanwhile, Cranston and Paul work the crowd inside, applying their autographs in felt marker to several cases worth of product. Paul shows off the leaflet clasping the collar of each bottle. It features a picture of Velasco Luis, who has equity in the brand. "It was always his dream—not just to make mezcal—but to get it out to the world," says Paul. "So we feel very blessed to be the ones that he chose to help him achieve that."
Cranston, who's now unpacking bottles onto a display table recalls his most recent visit to the palenque in San Luis del Río. "We couldn't go at all in 2020 for obvious reasons," he says. "But we just got back and I can't get enough of it. I remember when we first tasted his mezcal, [Velasco Luis] didn't want to work with us right away until we had lunch with him and his family—to make sure we connected and got along. They are so generous."
Paul and Cranston are committed to returning the favor. "It's really important for us to give back—not only to San Luis del Río—but to all of Oaxaca," says Paul. "We're getting some things in place with the governor down there and we've got some lofty goals that we're really excited about."
Most recently, the two received a promise from the Oaxacan governor that the state would fund improvements to the only road in and out of San Luis del Río. The dirt thoroughfare includes an often treacherous series of switchbacks. "I'm going to stay on the governor and keep reminding him that he promised to pave that road," says Cranston, channeling the unnerving focus of Walter White. "He'll do it. He genuinely cares about his state. So hopefully they'll have a paved road their pretty soon. A lot of their infrastructure difficulties will be straightened out because of it. Not just for Gregorio, but for the 500 people living in that town."
Cranston takes a break from signing bottles to pose with starstruck employees behind the counter. Paul has stepped outside to help a customer load up a bar's-worth of bottles into the back of his truck. Neither are shying away from enthusiastic fans. In fact, their social media team is in-tow, broadcasting their current location to hundreds of thousands of followers.
"The common denominator of all successful businesses is hard work," Cranston tells me as he breaks down cardboard boxes. "You gotta be willing to put in the hours and put in the work or it's not going to happen."
The steady expansion of Dos Hombres over these past two-and-half years stands as testament. And they've already proven themselves enough to attract a minority investment from booze behemoth Constellation Brands Inc. "I always knew there was going to be growth in this space," says Paul. "I'm just glad I get to enjoy it together with my buddy." After all, heavy lifting is easier with a pair of helping hands.