Meet the newest voice of Wild Turkey: Matthew McConaughey.
The Oscar-winning actor is not only lending his face and name to the iconic bourbon — he's going behind the camera to serve as chief storyteller in his new role as creative director. A global campaign produced by McConaughey will launch in September.
The aim is to get the story of this family-run distillery in Kentucky out to a wider audience, Eddie Russell told NBC. Russell is co-master distiller with his father Jimmy Russell (who's as big a star in the bourbon world as McConaughey is in Hollywood).
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And, while the Russells travel to spread the word, “we can only be around so many people,” he said. McConaughey's celebrity, however, reaches around the world.
And “that global market, it's become such a huge thing,” Russell said. “When I started in 1981 it was six percent [of our sales]. Now it's 35 percent and it's constantly growing.” The upswing in overseas sales reflects the bourbon boom heard round the world: Figures from the Distilled Spirits Council show a 10-fold increase in U.S. exports of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey during that time frame.
It also doesn't hurt that McConaughey has an appeal to another growing segment of the market, Russell acknowledged. “He speaks to women pretty easily,” he said. “Just by looking at him [you know that].” When McConaughey was spending time at the distillery, “the ladies would come in more made up [than usual],” Russell said with a laugh.
Russell senior has publicly thanked women for helping fuel bourbon's resurgence — and his son agrees. “Our market's changed so much, from older gentlemen to younger male and female.” And the female segment of that market, he said, is really growing. Mickey Lyons, a Detroit-based bartender and cocktail historian, can vouch for that. “In the last two years I've seen an uptick of 25 percent in women — especially younger women — ordering whiskey with confidence,” she told NBC.
McConaughey's appeal isn't limited to female fans, though. “He's such a manly man and that speaks well for both sides,” Russell said. “Bringing in someone like him that's worldly and sophisticated,” will introduce the brand to people who still have old notions about it, he believes.
“For a long time ... Wild Turkey had that image ... the southerners, the race car circuit ... the motorcycle crowd, the rough crowd,” said Russell. In part, he said, that was due to Wild Turkey sticking with their original recipe through bourbon's challenging years (when clear spirits took over). While others “took a lot of flavor and taste out of whiskey, Wild Turkey stayed with big bold taste,” he said. “We were the only ones who didn't cheapen our whiskey out.”
McConaughey appreciated that about them, Russell said. “We're a little bolder and bigger than a lot of them and ... he's taken roles that you might not think someone like him would take ... he's his true self and that's what Wild Turkey is about, being true to our roots.” The star also connected right away with the family, Russell explained, “because his dad played football at UK,” (the college in nearby Lexington).
The brand's parent company Campari initially aimed just to bring McConaughey on as a celebrity spokesperson. That's nothing new in the spirits industry, Frank Coleman, Senior Vice President of the Distilled Spirits Council, told NBC. “Think back to Sean Connery endorsing Johnny Walker in the 60s. What's unique about this is McConaughey is presumably in creative control ... he's producing the video. That's the first time I've heard of something like that.”
McConaughey was not available for comment, but he explained his role in the short film released on YouTube announcing the partnership. “I wanted to be more than just the face in the campaign,” he said. “I want to have my hands in the clay of how we tell the story, and I want to be a part of the whole story, not just the character in it.”
Dana McMahan is a contributing writer to NBC News.