Michael Cudlitz’s taste in whiskey is as all-American as his most memorable on-screen roles—fighters like Sergeant Denver “Bull” Randleman on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and Sergeant Abraham Ford from AMC’s The Walking Dead. We sat down with the avid whiskey fan and Long Island native at Porchlight in New York City to sip our way through a few of 2017’s best American whiskeys and find out what’s next for the actor following the gruesome death of his character on The Walking Dead, season 7.
Cudlitz is well cast as a sergeant; he’s even provided voiceovers for several Call of Duty video games. A fit and formidable figure, never short on opinions, he appears comfortably close to his blue-collar roots, knocking back a bourbon in his dock-worker knit cap and black leather boots. In fact, Cudlitz was working as the construction coordinator on Beverly Hills 90210—where he was politely informed to stick to swinging his hammer and forget any aspirations of auditioning—when one day in 1992 casting hit a roadblock and grabbed him from the sidelines. “I went in and read for one of the roles and got it, and it was a recurring character and those people have been great to me,” recalls Cudlitz, swirling a tumbler of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.
When he’s not enjoying tequila, Cudlitz says his go-to whiskeys are Bulleit rye and Blanton’s Single Barrel bourbon, although, like so many whiskey lovers, he laments that Blanton’s is becoming harder to find. Sipping through rarities like Four Roses Al Young’s 50th Anniversary bourbon and William Larue Weller 2017, Cudlitz declares them “amazing” whiskeys, but he is more interested in exploring bottles that everyone can enjoy. “To me the annoying thing about a lot of this stuff is that the price will sometimes and oftentimes limit your ability to experience something really cool. Is it better? I don’t know. I mean, that’s for you to decide. But people who can’t afford it will never experience it, and that’s kind of a shame. Because it’s sort of like, ‘Oh, so that’s a whiskey for rich people?’ I hate the idea that you are limiting the experience to only people who have money. I hate that.”
As we top our glasses with Peerless rye, it’s apparent Cudlitz is more excited about the prospects for craft whiskey than he is about prestige bottles and bragging rights. He’s visited Nashville’s Corsair and frequently stops in at other small distilleries when he travels. “Honestly, it’s like a microcosm of what’s happening in television,” he says of American craft whiskey. “You don’t have to do something that’s going to appeal to the masses. You can do something that’s really specific that’s going to appeal to this group that loves that thing. That’s okay.”
While Cudlitz generally takes his whiskey neat, he’s openly contemplating how much he’d like to sample the Peerless rye in a classic Old-Fashioned cocktail. Rye is his secret to getting a good Old-Fashioned on the road; he finds it’s much harder for a bartender to screw up his drink by making it too sweet. “If it’s a bar you haven’t been to, you gotta protect yourself,” he says. Cudlitz owes his fondness for the Old-Fashioned not to a talented bartender, but to his wife of 31 years and fellow actor, Rachael. “I started drinking Old-Fashioneds when I travel because that’s what my wife drinks. When I travel, I miss my family, so it’s one more thing that connects me to home.”
Travel recently took Cudlitz to Puerto Rico to film Driven, a biopic about the downfall of auto executive and engineer John DeLorean (Lee Pace) and his quest to build the ultimate sports car. Cudlitz plays cocaine smuggler Morgan Hetrick in the “light, dark comedy.” Cudlitz and the crew were forced to stop filming and evacuate Puerto Rico in advance of Hurricane Maria, but after the hurricane they insisted on returning to the island to complete filming, despite the devastation.
Fortunately, the team had pre-purchased all of their fuel, as required by the island, and were relying solely on generator power, enabling them to finish the final scenes. “So we were able to go back and finish the film on the island, put 250 people back to work. And it was amazing to be part of that. It was amazing to see the spirit of the Puerto Rican people, despite everything that had happened. And I’m very proud to be part of the project,” he says.
Later, at New York’s Grand Havana Room, puffing away on a Cohiba Siglo VI paired with a Blanton’s, neat, Cudlitz is in a happy place—a place where his dream is to welcome others, whether that ultimately means opening a cigar bar of his own or filming a television series focused on exploring craft distilleries and cigars. “We’ll just travel around and taste whiskeys and cigars, local small batch stuff,” he beams.
“I think everything should be done responsibly, but there’s nothing better than sitting down with a whiskey, a great bourbon at the end of the day, reflecting upon what the day brought and what you’re going to do in the future,” explains Cudlitz, preparing to hoist the flag for personal freedom. “I think we’re losing that ability to have a moment by ourselves…enjoy something that you just enjoy doing because it helps you get to a different place in your life and think about things in a different way. Because society is so judgmental of things like, at times alcohol, at times cigars. So I really don’t give a shit about what society thinks. I’m a grown-ass man, as my wife has told me, and I enjoy spirits. I enjoy cigars.” Cudlitz delivers his diatribe with the sort of wink and colorful indignation that made Abraham Ford a fan favorite on the The Walking Dead, but the subtext is very heartfelt: this is America.
Who: Michael Cudlitz, actor
Favorite Style: Bourbon and rye
Go-To Whiskies: Bulleit rye, Blanton’s Single Barrel bourbon
How He Drinks: Neat and in Rye Old-Fashioneds
New Pastime: Exploring small craft distilleries with his wife while traveling for work and pleasure
In the Headlines: Starring in the new film Driven about John DeLorean, appearing at the Toronto International Film Festival this month