William H. Macy’s surprising second act is right here in Aspen, collaborating with a team of geniuses who are making some of America’s best spirits right now.
William H. Macy wants to sing. The veteran actor, who currently stars in the 11th and final season of Shameless as the rogue patriarch of the dysfunctional Gallagher family, can’t fight the urge to warble a few lyrics. So he does, earnestly and with all of the conviction of a man who’s figured out what matters and what needs to be left to ruin.
“So the song I wrote is called ‘Why I Put My Pants On,’ and it’s about me and the pandemic,” says Macy, who owns a house in the valley with his wife, Felicity Huffman. Macy and his family spent part of the pandemic here. “I was feeling pretty blue, so I went to my favorite bar, Woody Creek Tavern, and I looked in the window, and there was Gus, the bartender. Turns out he’d been showing up every day—just in case you needed to look through the window and see something familiar. So the song is about me saluting all of the people who can’t go to work right now.”
The tune, which can be found on YouTube, is at once divine and mournful, as Macy strums his vintage 1935 Martin ukulele. The actor laughs and says the lutelike device is “the crack cocaine of string instruments—don’t pick it up, because it’ll ruin you.” He first played one after wrapping up Boogie Nights, whose director, Paul Thomas Anderson, decided to stage a talent show with the cast. One rule: Every performer had to do something they hadn’t done before. “I sang a song with Felicity, and I played a ukulele, and I was hooked.” Since then, he’s been writing lyrics and melodies, especially for his two daughters’ birthdays each year.
The “Pants” tune is actually part of Macy’s second act: He also wrote the song for Woody Creek Distillers, where he recently became a partner. The 8-year-old, Basalt-based operation has been turning heads in America’s distilling community for its vodkas, gins, rye whiskeys and bourbons; the latter two are aged at least four years. How did Macy get involved? Mark Kleckner, one of Woody Creek’s founding partners, wanted to grow potatoes on a couple of acres of Macy’s land for its vodka, and the actor loved the idea. “Colorado used to be the leading producer of America’s potatoes—the elevation makes it harder to grow them up here, but they’re incredibly tasty,” Macy says.
Kleckner says he and his partners, Mary and Pat Scanlan, started to develop a relationship with Macy. “Bill is such a sharp guy, and he likes to tinker. He’s also got a big workshop on his property, and he loves building things,” says Kleckner, who spent the bulk of his career as an aerospace engineer. “The more he got to know about us and our distillery, the more he loved what we were doing, so it was a natural fit.” They’d discovered a kindred spirit.
What impresses Macy the most about Woody Creek Distillers is its allegiance to the past. “A thousand years ago, they were making alcohol exactly this way—nothing has changed here except efficiency,” he says. “The German pot stills in the distillery are two stories high. They’re gorgeous engineering marvels. The fact that Mark and the partners are so smart about the process blew me away when I first saw the operation. He talked me through the steps—how they make the mash, and how they cook it. It’s a delicious marriage of science and creativity.” Every spirit Woody Creek produces is vertically integrated from farm to bottle.
As Shameless enters its final season, William H. Macy joins Basalt-based Woody Creek Distillers as a partner.
The coup: The distillery’s potato vodka won double-gold at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition; its rye whiskey also brought home double-gold—an achievement not duplicated by any other distiller in the country. “Winning double-gold for vodka is unheard of,” says Macy. “It’s like winning all of the Academy Awards with a film made on your iPhone.”
The distillery continues to release new whiskeys, which can now be found in 22 states, and growing. “We used to bottle everything by hand, but we’ve recently automated—two people can now do six pallets before lunch,” says Kleckner. “We’re all in on this business. If you’re stagnant, you’re moving backward.”
I ask Macy if he sees any parallels between making spirits and the creative and collaborative process inherent in acting and moviemaking. “I really do. Both in distilling and making a film, there’s a huge technical aspect of it, and if you aren’t good at the technicalities, you’re going to have a flawed product,” he says.
Macy took up the ukulele as a lark during a postproduction talent show for the cast of Boogie Nights; he’s been playing—and writing lyrics and melodies—ever since, and has a collection of the instruments, including this one from Martin, circa 1935.
Still, technical prowess must merge with making something special and then perfecting the grace notes of creativity, over and over. “I was in the distillery once, and I saw someone who worked there, and he sat behind this humble little desk with three glasses in front of him,” says Macy. “The guy tasted one glass and wrote something down; then he tasted another glass and wrote something else down. Taste is a subjective decision—this glass is better than that one. And it’s complicated because Woody Creek makes so many spirits with lots of different tastes. They’re constantly playing with different tastes for different bottles—again, they’re technical geniuses but also very creative.”
Macy so believes in this creativity that he continues to give bottles to friends like Rob Reiner, the cast of Shameless and comrades at Showtime and Warner Bros., among others. He’s a giddy purveyor of spirits, and it’s clearly something he never expected. I can hear the incredulity in his voice. “I got into this business because my older brother taught me how to play guitar in high school,” he says. “I entered a talent show at Allegany High School in Cumberland, Md., and I sang a song my brother had taught me that he learned in college.” It was wildly inappropriate for a high school audience, with a refrain of “Your papa ain’t your papa, but your papa don’t know.”
He laughs at the memory. “I went from this shy red-headed kid to a big man on campus in one song. The audience laughed so hard, and I really liked that feeling, so that was my launch into showbiz.” A field of potatoes launches what’s next. He’s even moving to Aspen full time next summer. “I really want to live there, and I really believe in this company. But call it semiretirement. I’ll still act a little. As long as you can stand upright and memorize lines, there’s always something for you.” And there’s always a song to be sung by a man who can’t stop tinkering with, and being enlightened by, life in the valley.
Photography by: Jeff Minton