The actor and proud Texan reflects on whiskey, marketing, music and what he’s learned as the Kentucky distillery’s creative director.
f you want to get Matthew McConaughey talking, ask him about whiskey. Describing the difference between a six- and eight-year, or how to bring a storied distillery to a new demographic, he waxes poetic.
“Every story has three acts. The sip, the bourbon takes the entrance through the mouth, and then down the back,” he says. “That’s three acts on the journey before you swallow it.”
The Academy Award-winning actor has been busy. In the past 18 months, McConaughey has published a memoir, starred in the animated film Sing 2 and even toyed with a gubernatorial run in his home state of Texas. But since for the past five years, he has also been immersed in Kentucky’s most famous export: bourbon.
Since 2016, McConaughey has been spokesperson and creative director for Wild Turkey, working with the Campari-owned whiskey to write—and of course star in—a wide variety of ads. He’s also appeared in plenty of other marketing efforts including a virtual bourbon tastings, a Thanksgiving dinner for bartenders in London and, just last month, a partnership with Australian camping company Homecamp to raise money for brushfire recovery. Earlier on in his tenure, McConaughey even collaborated with Wild Turkey’s master distillers to make his own whiskey, which he affectionately refers to as “the juice.”
“Very early on, I brought up to them that I didn’t want to just be the hired hand that comes in and puts my voice and voice,” he says. “That’s worth something, but I wanted to be a part of the creative.”
McConaughey isn’t a rookie when it comes to ad campaigns. In 2014, he signed a multiyear deal with Lincoln Motor Company, the same year Time named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people—before appearing in commercials for a number of other automakers. Prior to that, he narrated ads for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Peace Corps.
“We’re peddling bourbon. This is not overly serious. It should be fun…We don’t want to take you to class.”
And the role of celebrity creative director isn’t new. Ryan Reynolds is perhaps one of the best-known creative directors for his work with Aviation gin, which Diageo acquired last year for $610 million. Earlier this year, Drew Barrymore become creative officer at Garnier, followed by Kendall Jenner at FWRD, and a decade ago, Lady Gaga helped design sunglasses with LCD displays as creative director of Polaroid. A recent story in the New York Times describes the trend as being “a two-way validation system” for both a brand and the celebrity endorsing it.
Despite this—and the ever-growing list of celebrities, including Peyton Manning, Andy Roddick, Vera Wang, Kate Hudson, Bill Murray, George Clooney, Michael Jordan and Snoop Dogg, who put their names on alcohol brands—many have a hard time articulating why they like the brands they represent. But when McConaughey—better known for starring in films like Dazed and Confused and Dallas Buyers Club than for moonlighting as a copywriter—talks about Wild Turkey, he sounds less like a pitch man reliant on talking points and more like a brand strategist. He says that the first ads he worked on were about reaching new bourbon drinkers while encouraging an older generation to “dust off the bottle” and “look at it in a slightly different way.” It’s a story in three acts, he says, and the source material is always the same: Wild Turkey’s longtime family of distillers, the Russells.
“We’re peddling bourbon,” McConaughey says. “This is not overly serious. It should be fun…We don’t want to take you to class.”
The strategy appears to be working more than all right, all right, all right. According to data from Kantar, the bourbon brand outpaced competitors during the pandemic with 19.2% growth in volume compared to the broader whiskey category, which saw growth of 15%. Since McConaughey began working with Wild Turkey, its global portfolio has grown by 14.6%—something the company attributes to his campaigns.
Arthur Shapiro, former chief marketing officer of Seagram’s whiskey, says whiskey is “a product that has story, romance and, probably of most importance, Americana.” Now a consultant, he adds that bourbon in particular has “a mystique; it’s got history.”
“It’s gone from passive marketing to active marketing,” Shapiro says. “It’s gone from ‘Here I am, go buy me’ to ‘Here’s why you should buy me and here’s what’s good about it.’”
Distilling A Brand—And How To Market It
Despite the modern advertising, Wild Turkey has plenty of history. Founded by Thomas Riply in 1891, the distillery has changed owners several times since the Prohibition Era. Jimmy Russell became the third distiller in 1954, decades before Eddie Russell joined in 1981 as a relief operator. In 2000, Jimmy Russell was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, and people familiar with the whiskey world consider Russell family as bourbon royalty.
But no one knew the master distillers, says Eddie Russell. “I remember just going to liquor stores and signing bottles and trying to tell our story. And that’s the way it went for several years.”
Some of the brand’s earlier marketing ruffled some feathers. In 2011—two years after Gruppo Campari acquired Wild Turkey from Pernod for $575 million—it ran a controversial campaign called “Give ‘em the Bird,” featuring a middle finger on its website and social media, as well as other content that led to a complaint filed with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The trade body decided the ad violated its ethics code, and Wild Turkey withdrew the campaign.
“It got people’s attention, but wasn’t a great marketing campaign,” Russell admits.
The company signed on McConaughey to expand Wild Turkey’s drinking demographic, attracting more women and a more upscale clientele. According to data from the Distilled Spirits Councils’ 2021 liquor handbook, women account for just 36.5% of bourbon drinkers, while those who make more than $75,000 a year make up nearly 20%. And while some Kentucky distilleries such as Buffalo Trace are known more for their collector bottles, Wild Turkey has maintained a reputation among enthusiasts as consistently balancing quality, accessibility and price.
When he started working with Wild Turkey, McConaughey says they tried to dispel the perception that bourbon is “male, over 60, after work, on the porch” with a campaign featuring younger people socializing. Last year a campaign titled “Wonder What If” featured the actor alone in a field talking and asking questions of a bottle of bourbon. A third campaign, which debuted this summer, was meant to be “simple, self-assured,” and focuses once again on the distillery’s history.
“We’re not trying to dust off and re-show you a product that you maybe didn’t know about,” McConaughey tells Forbes. “We’re saying, with confidence, now go forward. Choose it if you want to. We’re not here to solicit you or to say, ‘Oh pick us.’ We’re not trying to be the most popular. That’s how the Russells got here. That’s how Wild Turkey got here.”
Because McConaughey writes with a rhythm and cadence similar to how he talks, Wild Turkey Executive Creative Director Josh Combs says he tries not to edit the Interstellar star’s words too much. For a recent campaign called “Trust Your Spirit,” Combs wrote a script, that McConaughey countered with another.
“He just came back and said, ‘It’s not just about daydreaming. That’s the easy part. We need to get to the doing, so what if we do daydreaming, and even more night-doing?’” Combs recalls. “And I was like okay, only Matthew can say that.”
Wild Turkey has had some help from the bourgeoning bourbon market. The U.S. whiskey and bourbon industry has grown on average by 6.1% since 2016 and is around $4.8 billion in 2021, according to IBISWorld. A decade ago, fewer than 100 distilleries existed in the U.S., but now there are more than 600. Meanwhile, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States reported total case volume for bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey and rye whiskey grew by 7% in 2020 with revenue up by 8.2%.
The biggest change in the bourbon category over the past few years has been the “appetite for knowledge,” according to Combs.
“It’s had this moment where it went from, ‘Hey I’d like an old fashioned’ to ‘I want my bourbon on the rocks,’” he says. “And if I want my bourbon on the rocks, maybe I should have a different bourbon, so maybe I should understand why this one is spicier, oh it’s because it has more rye.”
What Five Years Of Tasting Notes Sounds Like
Storytelling has also played a role in McConaughey’s own “juice.” While crafting his Long Branch rye whiskey—which was released in 2018—the Russells would send him a few samples at a time, and he’d share feedback through late-night emails, phone calls and voice messages. After what Russell says was 44 samples (McConaughey recalls it being more like 80), he tasted one that “matches the story I’ve been trying to tell.”
“Eddie thankfully understood what I was talking about,” McConaughey says. “Bourbon, music. They go together. I didn’t have to change my nomenclature to communicate with Eddie about what I was looking for and liking or what I was hoping for in what turned out to be Long Branch.”
McConaughey often uses music as metaphor to describe his tasting notes, comparing tannins to treble and sweetness to bass. When asked to pair a bottle of Wild Turkey’s signature 101 rye with a band, McConaughey riffed, painting a picture of a concert where “101 comes at you with a bit of a stronger forearm.”
“It still has got a strong baseline, but you feel it more immediately,” he says. “But 101 stands out no matter what the weather. It’s why bartenders love it because it can break through any drink you’ve got in there and make sure sure that it’s exposed and you know you’re drinking a real bourbon.”
So, what does Long Branch sound like? After pausing for a moment, he says Americana songwriter and fellow Texan James McMurtry.
“Great storyteller,” McConaughey says. “You can still call it country, but it’s got some rock and roll elbow grease. And he’s got a great rhythm with some very clever lyrics along the way that make you go, ‘Oh I did not see the story going that away, but I sure do like the story I’m being told.’”