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Matthew McConaughey's latest role: bourbon blender
The actor expands his role as pitchman for the Wild Turkey brand by launching his own whiskey

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Saturday, September 22, 2018 – Page P7

Matthew McConaughey likes his bourbon. Enough that when Campari Group asked the Hollywood star to become a celebrity pitchman for its Kentucky-based Wild Turkey brand a couple of years ago, he jumped in with both feet to become "creative director." Now he's hatched his own superpremium, small-batch creation, called Longbranch, a two-year effort with Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell that will soon be released in Canada. I met with McConaughey and Russell over some bourbon in Toronto recently for an exclusive chat.

Matthew, you signed on as Wild Turkey's creative director in 2016.

What does that job entail?

McConaughey: I started sharing ideas about which way we wanted to go and it became clear to myself and them that really I had instinctually fallen into a position that's more than just being a face. I've got a marketeering mind, I've got an advertising mind. We said, why am I coming on board in any capacity? For my own authenticity.

What is Wild Turkey about? Authenticity through generations.

And then it came down to, okay, who are we selling to? There's a younger generation that is thirsty for bourbon now. Let's get in front of their faces. Let me help write and direct the campaign, what the message is.

Now you've developed a whiskey together. Eddie, was it hard to let a movie star share blending duties?

Russell: It was tough for me, probably the hardest thing I've ever done. For my dad [Jimmy Russell, the co-master distiller], it was supertough to see a young face like Matthew come in because my dad had been the only face out there.

But what I loved about Matthew was that he said it was genuine, it wasn't fake stuff. When he started talking those words, it was perfect for me. It was fun. It was also frustrating at times.

How so?

Russell: I'm at work every day and I'm always tasting. I'd send Matthew samples and he's like, "Well, I don't read a script as soon as I get it, it's got to be the perfect time."

McConaughey: Sometimes my turnaround wasn't too quick. I'd get the sample and he was like, "Give me the response tomorrow."

Can you tell me more about that, the experience of tasting 80-plus samples? Was your family taken aback by the chemistry-set homework?

McConaughey: I've been travelling all over the world and I've played different characters for 26 years. There's not much I do where they're surprised. They were like, "What are you doing?" I was like, "Well, me and Mr. Eddie Russell, who's a master distiller at Wild Turkey, we're creating our own juice. So, that's where these little bottles come in. It looks just like a little chemistry experiment.

And later on, sometime this week, if it feels right, I'm going to sip those and walk around."

When would you taste?

McConaughey: Sipping late at night was easier, because I would take notes and write things down.

Camila [Alves, his wife] would have a sip with me. I wouldn't tell her which ones I liked or why I liked them better or which ones I didn't like as much. And then I'd compare notes with her as well. I mean, it's pretty fun homework, to sip bourbon in the making. It wasn't hard for me to do. Harder for him.

Russell: Even how he talked about it was different for me. We sort of had a language we spoke in our industry, and he spoke a little more with musical words. My wife's family is very musical, but I'm not. So when he talked about tenor and bass, I had to decipher.

Matthew, how would you rate your palate?

Russell: I'd rate it pretty damn good.

McConaughey: It's my favourite palate, my own. I've got a discerning palate. Food, spirits and music are three things that I don't shy away from being very specific about what I like and why I like it.

Russell: I'm telling you, had it been where I didn't think he knew what he was talking about, I would have just went my way. But when I got those notes back from him and the phone calls, I realized he's a very good taster. He doesn't know this, but with some of those last samples I sent him, I secretly threw in some of the first samples just to make sure that he knew what he was talking about.

Matthew, you've said you were looking for a bit of sweetness in the taste profile. Did you really ask Eddie to dump a bunch of sugar cane in the vat?

McConaughey: In my defence, I believe this was around the time I was in Mauritius. It's a little island that is known for making rum. So, I'm driving by sugar-cane fields every day going to work. And I'm tasting, and I was like, I want just a little more legato in the back third. Another musical term: legato. Less staccato, which would be tannin and more of the alcohol content. I want a little more sweetness, a little longer bass line coming out. So, I asked Eddie, "Could you just put a little, I don't know, a few stalks of sugar cane in there?" And he was like, "No, I cannot."

Russell: Jimmy, my dad, would have fired both of us right there.

You also employed a process involving a tree common in Matthew's home state of Texas. Tell me about charcoal filtration through mesquite.

Russell: It was tough for us because we had never done any charcoal filtration. And the mesquite charcoal was a little too smoky. I was looking for some of that citrus the mesquite puts off and a little smokiness but not too much. So I ended up adding American white oak to sort of take some of the high notes, the more astringent notes, out.

Who chose the bottle?

McConaughey: Campari came to me with different options for designs. I ended up with this bottle because, like a great sports car, it's got great shoulders and hips. It's proud. There's nothing arrogant about it, but it's built - shoulders and then hips. This little detail is nice, the little break in the shoulders. And then the next move was, all right, the bourbon's the hero - we don't want a big label covering that. I love seeing the colour of bourbon up there on a good bar back.

I gather Matthew was brought in partly to help broaden Wild Turkey's appeal among women. Is that happening?

Russell: There's other distilleries that choose other celebrity-type people, and that's great. But what I love about Matthew is that what he's done in his career appeals to both men and women. I mean, every woman wants to meet him, but men like him also.

Any feedback about Longbranch from Hollywood friends or acquaintances, Matthew?

McConaughey: People are sending me shots of the empty bottles, going, "My brother and I sat down last night and caught up, and look where we ended up." That's my favourite thing about this. We've all got products that we can sell. I do it with movies. I happen to like most of the movies I'm in. Some of them I like more than others. But when I get a hold of a really good one, it sells itself. All I've got to do is introduce. That's what I feel about Longbranch.

Wild Turkey Longbranch will be released in the coming weeks in Ontario for $59.95 and in Western Canada through October and November. An Eastern Canada rollout is planned for 2019.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Associated Graphic

Matthew McConaughey, left, and Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell spent two years working on a superpremium, small-batch bourbon called Longbranch that is set to be released across Canada.


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