Adweek Podcast: Drinking Bourbon With Matthew McConaughey

A campaign as easy to make as his Wild Turkey Longbranch blend is to drink

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Alright, alright, alright, it’s time for a new episode of Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad.

This week, celebrated actor and Wild Turkey creative director Matthew McConaughey joins Adweek’s David Griner and Shannon Miller to sample his custom bourbon, Longbranch, and talk about the process behind its ads.

Stream the new episode below, listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or find it on Spotify.


Matthew McConaughey: Hey, McConaughey here. You are listening to Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad here on the Adweek Podcast [Network]. Today, we’re going to be talking about an ad that I am in and created with the good folks at Wild Turkey for Longbranch: “Wonder: What If?” So we can find out.

David Griner: And I’m David Griner. I’m the international editor for Adweek, and as you can tell, we’ve got a very special guest today: Matthew McConaughey, the famed actor and creative director and so many other titles. But I quickly wanted to also, of course, introduce our co-host, Shannon Miller, creative and inclusion editor here at Adweek. Shannon, always great to have you.

Shannon Miller: Awesome. How am I supposed to follow that?

McConaughey: Well, you’ve got to follow it because we were offline before we got started and David said this is a contest.

Griner: It’s a test of wills. And it is not a competition, because we’re all going to be winners today. We will be taste testing Longbranch, the Wild Turkey whiskey that Matthew has been working on and has created some ads for. We’ll be talking about it. We’ll be tasting it. Matthew, do you have some with you there, too?

McConaughey: I do. I have two rocks on mine.

Griner: I’m going to be drinking neat. Shannon, you got yours handy?

Miller: I do. Neat and tidy.

McConaughey: Neat and tidy. I’ve got two rocks because the sun has not quite set yet where I am.

Griner: I’m going to, for the sake of audio here, much like one of the spots in your new campaign, Matthew, I’m going to try to get the audio of popping open the bottle here. Let’s see if it works for me as well as it did for the ad. One second.

Miller: That was nice.

Griner: That was good audio.

McConaughey: Whoah, the reverberation, it just got to me over here in Texas! I just heard it!

Griner: And I am pouring for our producers in the studio as well. All right, I’m going to go ahead and give it a shot here. This is the first time I’ve had Longbranch.

That’s so smooth.

Miller: That is dangerously smooth, actually.

McConaughey: It works, doesn’t it?

Griner: So Matthew, tell us about this. I’ve read quite a bit about this. I’m a big whiskey and bourbon drinker, but I’m not one of those who dig deep into the tasting notes and all this, but I think Longbranch has a really fascinating story of the goal of it. So tell us a little bit about it.

McConaughey: Yeah, so I came on and started working with Wild Turkey, was creative director and was helping them, working with writing some of the ads and starring in some of them, even directed some of the early ones. And in my back pocket, I always did want to have a take at creating my favorite bourbon. And so I’m working with the Russell family. I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, I have access for maybe that to become a reality now.’

And [master distiller] Eddie Russell and I began trying different bourbons, different Wild Turkey bourbons. And I don’t know all the nomenclature either, but I did know what I liked and what tasted good, and what I wanted more of and what I wanted less of.

And one of the great things about when you’re trying to create your favorite juice or your favorite spirit, it’s not technical jargon. It’s like music. So I would just start talking very musically to Eddie, or I would send him recordings. Some of my best notes, as he said, came around 3 a.m. after I had tasted plenty of Longbranch.

Griner: See, that’s when I think I’ve had my best ideas, too.

McConaughey: That’s the great thing about if you’re going to go make your favorite spirit. One of my favorite things about making my favorite bourbon here in Longbranch: It’s not just a 9-to-5 job. It’s actually, you get better at your job after the moon has risen higher and the sun has set longer. So I started sharing ideas: “Oh, I like this. I wish it had more of this.” And I remember one of the big breakthroughs was I was working in Mauritius—it’s a big rum island, and obviously rum has a lot of sugar in it and sugar cane. And I remember Eddie would send these testers of juices before it became Longbranch. He would send them to me, and I’d taste and I’d send my notes.

And one of these notes, I was like, “Man, could it be a little sweeter? Could you throw a couple of sticks of sugarcane in there?” He was like, “Hell no, I can’t do that. But I think I know what you mean.” And what that meant to him was, let’s go from a six-year to an eight-year. Which, the two extra years will mellow some of the spice on the end, will mellow some of the hit in the third act of when you drink it—as it goes in, then it goes up to the roof of the mouth, and then on the swallow, that third act, it mellowed it just a hair. And the two extra years in the barrel gave it a bit more of that sweetness and less of the aggressive pop.

So that was a big breakthrough. And then I remember I tried about 88 different little bottles. He’d send like four pints at a time. And it was on my birthday. I was on the river where I learned to swim in South Texas, around the campfire with my family. And I tried all four.

And the third one I tried, I was like, that’s it. But I didn’t want to say it out loud because I wanted to have Camilla, my wife, taste and see what she thought. And I didn’t say anything. She had a sip of all four and all of a sudden she goes, “This is the one.” And it was the one I had picked. So we got to it over the years, and it was really fun experience.

If you’re going to make your own, your favorite bourbon or your favorite spirit, not getting it right for a long time is really fun.

Griner: Yeah, I was like, this doesn’t sound like the hardest job. So tell us about the, and I’m just going to admit, I had to read up on this to understand, you mentioned in some of the ads about oak, about mesquite, obviously mesquite bringing some Texas to this Kentucky tradition.

McConaughey: Yeah.

Griner: So that’s filtered through charcoal that’s made from the oak and the mesquite?

McConaughey: Yes. And, you know, mesquite is a traditional heritage wood that we cook with and grill with, and it’s very hot-burning wood here in Texas. It was an interesting and fun way to go, “How do we combine Kentucky and Texas?” So it was Eddie’s idea to filter it through the mesquite. And it’s that bit of smokiness that you taste in there that no other bourbons really have like we do. And the combination just worked out well, and a finer palate can explain to you exactly what note they taste and when. All I really knew is that was the taste I liked. And I was like, “Yep, we have finally made what is now my favorite bourbon on the planet.” And that is Longbranch.

Griner: All right. So let’s talk a little about the ads.

Miller: I really wanted to talk about the creative approach to this because, as a person who defaults to bourbon whenever I’m out or drinking socially, this really felt like a strong departure from the bourbon ads that I’m so used to seeing.

This was clearly lighter than what we see pretty often. You’re so used to the oak barrels and the darkened bar and the prestige. And this was so fun to watch you push this cart in the field and literally chase the party. Was the lighter tone a priority for you in the beginning, or is that something sprouted organically? How did that come about?

McConaughey: I mean, it was a deliberate choice we made for these last two ad campaigns. Look, we started off our campaign, I don’t know, almost a decade ago. We had a great story to tell with the Russells. We shot on their property. We tracked and told the story of the heritage of Wild Turkey and a family that changed by staying the same, of a society that went through liking real bourbon and then wanting bourbon light. And then when they came out of bourbon light, wanting real bourbon again, and here was Wild Turkey saying, “We’ve got plenty for you.”

It was an introduction and a reintroduction in the beginning of our campaign. We had to reintroduce, sort of dust off the bottle for those who had enjoyed Wild Turkey in the past but maybe had forgot about it and oh, yes, it’s still here. That’s a true bourbon. We had to introduce a true bourbon to a generation who maybe didn’t know what Wild Turkey was. So it was between reintroducing and introducing. Every bourbon ad, it’s got wood and tobacco flavors. And you see the barrel, and its sunset on the porch—you know. It’s packaged like bourbon is a male-over-60s drink to have after a hard day’s work on the porch by their self.

OK, OK, there’s comfort in that. But we wanted to expand on that. And as it’s become more of a social choice, with younger folks, with [women], we wanted to open our aperture on what bourbon could be and how Wild Turkey, and even Longbranch, could be a choice at the bar socially.

So we then [shifted into] second gear of our commercials over the years to socialize it and make it be something that is socially chosen and acceptable amongst those who go out and hang out and go bar hopping, etc. Now, what we got to here recently with the “Wonder: What If” [campaign] is we said again, I mean, look. We’re selling bourbon. It’s a spirit. This is not the time where we want to create an anthemic, you know, overly moralized value-driven story, which I’ve done plenty of those and do some of those with other companies where it seems like it’s the right fit.

But this was like, “Look, let’s have fun. Let’s get our funny bone here. Let’s be corny. Let’s have a wink and a whimsy.” Let’s still have it look and feel like we’re selling bourbon, not vodka, which you see in the look and have it still feel like a Western, but let’s be playful. And first ask the question, “Wonder: What If?” Muse aloud. And then this latest ad campaign, the one that’s coming out now, we said, “Well, let’s answer the question.”

Let’s answer the wonder. Let’s give the answer to the “Wonder: What If?” Let’s sell the courage to go find out. Take the risk on that “Wonder: What If?” that’s your habit in your life? And it just turned out to be quite fun. We had certain vignettes, had 20 of them shot. Fourteen of them all in a day. Yeah, I guess that probably is an ad.

Griner: Let’s listen to one of the spots, and then we will have even more questions for Matthew.

Longbranch Ad: Two parts Longbranch, one part “yeah.”

Miller: There’s quite a lot to choose from here. What would you say was the most fun to shoot? Which vignette is closest to your heart? If there is one.

McConaughey: I mean, the series of the short :15s and :08s where I am pushing the car going, “Yeah, comin’! Thank you!” Whatever non-verbals and things like that make no sense, but gosh, I want to be there and I hope he’s bringing me that drink.

Those are really fun because that’s just me playing around. We had a whole field, we had a cart, and the idea of me having this classical cart with glasses and ice and a bottle of Longbranch on it, pushing it through a field without a pathway, to wherever, was just like, “OK, I don’t know where that bar is, but I want to go.”

That was fun because we got, like, five spots. We’ve got five assets out of a three-minute take, right, just improv’ed and riffed. So I liked that segment a lot, those assets a lot. I’ve got to say as a whole, as one that we planned on doing though, was, “What if Longbranch was a horse?” And I fancy myself an armchair auctioneer and a sort of, you know, I like to imitate, you know, the people who call horse races: [Impersonates fast-talking horse race announcer.]

I love doing that. And so on the creative call, I think I said: “What if Longbranch was a horse? And I’ll do the commentation, like I’m calling the race, and then settle in, the camera finds me and you see that I’m talking to myself and then I go, “Yeah, I’d bet on it.”

Longbranch Ad: What if there was a horse named Longbranch? Longbranch out of the gate? Into the turn on the inside detaching from the field, you better ring your honey because here comes the bunny. Is today going to be his big break? I’d bet on it.

McConaughey: That was a fun opening act, middle act, third act, closed little piece that is, as I said, playful, corny, “What the heck is that? I don’t know, but it was funny.” It was quirky. It’s not taking itself seriously. And it still has a fun bravado and confidence to saying, “Yeah, bet on it.” So that was probably my favorite ad, my favorite asset that we actually wrote before getting out there and shooting.

Griner: So let’s talk a bit about Miller Mobley, who directed these spots. I’d say maybe a little better known as a photographer, has shot covers of Adweek before. And most importantly, for my purposes, a fellow Alabamian, a fellow Birminghaman, and owns a pizza shop in Birmingham called Slim’s. How did you get connected? I know you’ve worked with Miller before. How’d you get connected, and tell us a little bit about that partnership and what he brings to it.

McConaughey: Yeah, so, Miller—if you know him, he’s extremely talented. We’ve done photoshoots. We did a [Men’s Journal] photoshoot I was very happy with. I also was very happy with the way he works. It’s just easy jazz. Nothing precious about it, but it’s like going on a mosey and he’s got a camera in his hand. And you’re talking about the same thing you’d talk about if he didn’t have a camera in his hand, as if you really had nowhere you needed to get to in a rush and we’re just going to take a walk together.

And then all of a sudden you come back and he shows you four or five shots. You’re like: “Oh, these are outstanding. When did you do those?” And that way of working is really fun. And when we were talking about who we’re going to get to do the creative and shoot these, I think it was my manager publicist, Nicole Perez, who said, “Well, what about Miller?”

Because we were talking about the look and the feel. And everyone was like, “That’s a great idea.” I called him up. We came in. We shot it up north of my home here in Austin off on a large ranch, a farm that had one nice tree in the field. And we just said, “We have very few elements here. We have this horizon around us, 360 degrees. We have this one lone healthy tree in the middle of this field. And we have this cart with squeaky wheels and a bottle of Longbranch. And we have me, McConaughey. OK, let’s go play.”

So all the setups, the reason we were able to get like 13, 14 assets in the day is, it was all right there. The set was huge, but all we needed was right there and we had very few elements and very few props that we needed to play with it. It wasn’t like we’d shoot one and then stop. And, “Oh, let’s go reset up for the next asset.” No, we just, “Where’s the sun? What are the elements in the frame we could use?” And we just use them.

I love working like that. My least favorite thing on any set is the entrances and the exits. The “OK, stop, everyone go back to the trailer. We’ll come get you later when you’re ready to shoot.” No, let’s show up in the morning, press record, get creative, come up with ideas on the fly.

And Miller’s really easy and doesn’t make it feel like work at all. And he doesn’t make it feel like he’s working at all, but yet at the end of the day, the assets and the film and the shots and the photos he gets are like, “That’s it. Great job. When did you get those?” I love it when it just gets caught, which Miller’s great at, just catching me.

Griner: Tell us about the whistle. I went back and rewatched some of the earlier spots, and you really miss the whistle when it’s not there. How did that get baked in?

McConaughey: I’ve learned this over the years with different ads. I mean, when we made the Lincoln ads, early on we did a lot of dialogue. As we gained our confidence with those ads, myself and the ad agency and the clients, it’d be like, “You don’t have to say anything. Can you communicate with a smile?” The right timed look, the non-verbal sound. People, I’m told, and I think it’s true, it’s fair to say, people are fans of a lot of my non-verbals. I’ve got to say, if I can get something across a non-verbal, in an ad, in a movie or in life, I prefer that way of communicating as well.

I love it. It’s almost like charades, and it’s not a nomenclature that’s bound to any certain texts. I’m musical. I hum. I whistle and I put a little, it’s a different way of putting a punctuation mark on the end of something. It’s the way I always try to get into a musical rhythm with whatever scene I’m doing in any film or ads.

Well, the whistle’s a bit of that sort of risqué Jiminy Cricket, you know? All of a sudden you hear it and we go, “Oh, well, let’s use that as a bumper.” That’s going to be like, Where’s Waldo, you know? “Oh, it shows up there again.” It makes me smile. It made other people smile. It lets you know, we’ve got a light tone. We’re swinging from the hip. Hey, enjoy it. We’re not taking ourselves too seriously. Let’s have fun. Wonder: What if? Hey, maybe go find out as well.

Griner: Approachability is something that I’ve heard discussed a lot with this specific drink, with Longbranch. The price point is approachable. It’s not going to break your bank to get it, but it tastes approachable. Like I said, this is our first tasting for me and Shannon, and it’s so easy. So tell us about the background of that, of wanting that to be a big part of the drink, and obviously wanting that to be a big part of the ads.

McConaughey: Well, as I said earlier, we were gonna keep making the juice until it’s my favorite bourbon on the planet. That doesn’t mean we’ve got to jack the price point way up and make it exclusive. We also completely redesigned the bottle. The shoulders and hips on our bottle, I’m a big fan of. Even the look of the bottle, I believe, looks like a much higher price point than the actual price point for the bourbon.

And then, OK, there’s packaging. Success, I think. But you still better have the damn product once you open it up and it hits your palate. So once we had the juice, once we had that we were like: “OK, this holds up, this is really good. This is my favorite bourbon on the planet. Now let’s package it.”

Right, but it’s not just a showman’s job. It’s not just a marketing job. If we don’t say anything, let the juice do the main talking for us, if we don’t say a damn word to solicit you to say, “Hey, try this.” When you do alone, is it good enough for you to go: “Choice. I would choose this”?

Well, that’s what we wanted before we ever got to, “Well, how do we sell it?” So it is approachable. People that used to only like maybe bourbon light, I find, like it. People that like a straight 101-proof hard hittin’ bourbon really like it. It seems to be amendable to all kinds of palates.

And then, as you say, the price point makes it reasonable as well, worth the buck, a lot of value in that bottle. So then we get to the ads. Again, we’re selling bourbon. When are you having a bourbon? At the end of a great day out, with your friends when you’re having a good time. We didn’t want to overthink it or make it too complicated or make it feel exclusive at all. It’s a very inclusive drink. And our approach to the ads are to say, “Yeah, I’d like to be there.” And my feeling in making the ads is, I want to be the guy that I’m like, “Well, I’d like to be having one with you too! Let’s have one.”

Miller: So my final question, because we talked a lot about what you are hoping this campaign conveys about the brand, this sense of community and fun and lightness. I’m wondering, just thinking about the future of bourbon marketing. Do you think that there is something new that we could look forward to? What do you think the future of bourbon marketing looks like?

McConaughey: The future of bourbon marketing. Now I know why you call this a competition. You know, I haven’t given thought to the overall bourbon market. We started off with, like I said earlier, what we knew. We had a great story with the Russells, a story that not a lot of people knew. I had a great relationship with the Russells. We wanted to make sure that it was clear that, in our relationship and the stories that I helped them tell, you could see we like each other.

This isn’t like, I got hired and we made these ads and then I come and finally one day met them. No, I spent time with them and their story. And we met on similar values of who we are as people and as men, as fathers and as families early on. So the relationship is authentic. That’s been the approach with the ads.

These ads are an extension of me, and I’m an extension of them. If making these bourbon ads, making Longbranch ads, starts to feel like I need to put on a hard hat and go, “Boy, I really got to go to work,” well, I’m going about it the wrong way.

Again, we’re selling bourbon. It is a community drink. It is a time when people want to relax at the end of the day. We wanted to sell a sense of adventure and joy and community and playfulness, especially at these times where we’re all kind of figuring out how much of a rut are we in as a society? As America? Around the world? There’s enough we’ve got to worry about and try to maintain and get through in the last couple of years that I don’t necessarily want to see a bourbon ad trying to tell me I need to do more hard work.

So the future of it, we’ll play that as it lays. We always get response. We’ll follow up on this ad campaign and see what it was that tickled people, see what people liked about it. I’ll internalize that and see where it’s synonymous with what people like about me and what they like about the Longbranch bourbon specifically. How is that also synonymous with the Russell family, who are the founders of why we’re talking here right now? I don’t think we have to try that hard if we just listen and do something that feels authentic. People can smell and taste that.

Griner: Well, Matthew McConaughey, actor, creative director for Wild Turkey, congratulations on such an enduring career and on creating Longbranch, and on this newest campaign. And a tremendous thanks for joining us on this podcast.

McConaughey: Ehh, that’s probably an ad.

Miller: This is my favorite thing.

McConaughey: I enjoyed that, Dave and Shannon.