Matthew McConaughey remembers the first time he enjoyed bourbon, conjuring up the details as though it happened yesterday.
“I was duck hunting with my dad in Arkansas and I was in high school,” he says. “It was about eleven degrees and there was a hole in my wader, and I was wet and cold. Real cold. But we’d only been out there an hour or so and we weren’t going back soon. So my dad pulled out a flask with some bourbon in it and said, ‘Sip on this. It’ll warm you up.’ And it saved the day for me.”
These days, McConaughey prefers warmer environs, with the only chill provided by an occasional single ice cube (and only if the weather is really warm). “Really, I take it neat.”
In search of a bourbon that perfectly suited his taste, McConaughey created it himself: Wild Turkey Longbranch, a bourbon crafted over a two-year collaboration with Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell. The new offering takes the Kentucky classic and gives it a Texas twist by utilizing mesquite charcoal in its production.
Longbranch is just the latest step in the evolution of the relationship between the Academy Award-winning actor and native Texan and the Lawrenceburg, Ky. whiskey distiller. Wild Turkey initially approached McConaughey to be a spokesman for their brand, similar to his role with Lincoln Motor Company. While he was happy to be a spokesperson for Lincoln, he had a wider vision for Wild Turkey.
Since becoming Wild Turkey’s creative director in mid-2016, McConaughey has overseen the creation of a pair of short films/commercials. What Lincoln and Wild Turkey share, he says, is, “They’re both iconic American inventions. I was keen on re-introducing and introducing people—especially a younger generation—to Wild Turkey.”
One thing led to another. “I’ve secretly wanted to make a bourbon of my own,” McConaughey admits. “So when we started on this, I thought, ‘What’s the Texas-Kentucky connection?’ I wanted to find something that was from the earth, that was quintessentially Texan, that could team up with Wild Turkey. When I hit on mesquite charcoal, I thought, ‘That’s our in.’”
He spent time in Kentucky with Russell and his 83 year old father, Jimmy, still active as a Wild Turkey master distiller. They talked and sampled, as McConaughey tried to explain the flavor he was searching for: something a little sweeter than Wild Turkey 101.
Russell put the bourbon through a two-step filtration process, the first being to circulate it through traditional oak charcoal. “That softens the top notes and takes away some of the astringency,” Russell says. “It imparts a smoothness that Matthew liked.”
For the second step, Russell circulated it through mesquite charcoal. “That imparts a hint of smokiness, but not so much that it becomes [like] scotch,” he says. “There’s a character and a sweetness, but it’s still a straight bourbon.”
But they still weren’t achieving the sweetness McConaughey sought. “At one point, I said, ‘Maybe you could put a hunk of sugar cane in, or something,’” McConaughey recalls, a serious breach of bourbon protocol since straight bourbon has no additives. But Russell had a plan.
“When he said ‘sweetness,’ I thought of using older whiskey,” Russell says. He switched from a 6 to an 8 year old bourbon, which made the difference. “Between his feedback and my knowledge of how to make it happen, we were able to figure it out.”
During the process, Russell sent McConaughey test tubes with the successive blends for his approval, until they found the perfect iteration: “He called me at four in the morning and said, ‘This is perfect—I don’t even need to add ice,’” Russell says.
A beer drinker with a taste for wine and tequila, McConaughey developed a real appreciation for bourbon, “Probably in the last decade, as a sipping drink.”
“People have come around to the idea of what’s a real bourbon—and the Russells have out-endured all the blended whiskeys,” McConaughey says. “Bourbon is special for Southerners and everyone knows the best bourbon is made in Kentucky, because of Kentucky river water. And now we’re taking it to Texas.”
Who: Matthew McConaughey: Oscar-winning actor, Wild Turkey creative director
Original Creation: Wild Turkey Longbranch
Other drinks: Beer, sipping tequila, port
How he drinks it: Neat, “Maybe one ice cube if it’s warm out.”
Whiskey moment: Camping with his family, enjoying Wild Turkey Longbranch and a Romeo y Julieta cigar around the campfire.