Matthew McConaughey is handsome, rich, famous, and a Hollywood fixture. But he’s also still just Texas enough to charmingly rib a journalist from New York City about the potential dangers lurking in the Texas Hill Country. “You’re from New York, don’t be running barefoot out here,” he says with a smirk over Zoom. “The wildlife isn’t dangerous, but it has a bite, you know what I mean?” Based on the fist-sized spider I saw outside my door that morning at Longbranch Ranch at Walden Retreats, I had an inkling.
McConaughey lives in Austin, about an hour’s drive from Longbranch Ranch, where I had traveled for a press preview before the property opened to the public. But he was in a good mood, having just gotten home from watching Austin FC, the soccer club he co-owns, beat Real Salt Lake.
Longbranch Ranch at Walden Retreats shares its name with the Kentucky-meets-Texas bourbon brand McConaughey and Wild Turkey launched in 2018. Two years before that, McConaughey was named creative director for the distillery. This 8-year-old bourbon filtered through white oak and mesquite charcoal is the first fruit of that partnership (you can also find McConaughey in Wild Turkey 101 commercials currently airing).
As for the property, Walden Retreats opened in 2017 in the countryside above the Pedernales River as a luxury glamping ranch with 15 “tents” (think fancy hotel room covered with canvas), a general store, lodge, and no Wi-Fi so you can truly feel unplugged (the cell service is just fine, however). Starting this March, the ranch is all Longbranch-McConaughey everything, with branded pillows and blankets in the rooms, copies of his book Greenlights casually positioned within reach and, of course, bottles of Longbranch available just in case you need a dram after encountering some of that Hill Country wildlife.
The current brand campaign for Longbranch is called “Wonder What If,” which sounds like it was conceived by a group of marketing people instructed to wax poetic. But over the course of our interview, McConaughey spoke whimsically about the joys of sipping bourbon and—the star that he is—managed to tie it all in neatly back to the theme.
“Different drinks give people different frequencies for their creative thoughts,” he says. “Sipping some Longbranch…if I’ve got some ideas, letting them come to my mind is on par with the feeling I get when I’m behind the wheel of my car driving somewhere. Not when I’m driving, because I’m not drinking and driving,” he quickly clarified. “But that feeling of driving on an open road is a relaxing feeling—it helps creative thoughts come to me very easily.”
Even though McConaughey was born in south Texas and raised in east Texas, Austin and the Hill Country mean a lot to him.
“You get your horizon in one direction, if you want it, but then you get all those live oaks behind you with some small hills and undulations that give you depth of field as well,” he adds. “I have friends that will take major pay cuts in their jobs if they can remain in the Hill Country rather than moving to places in Texas or another state.”
The Longbranch Ranch seems perfectly suited to this type of existential sipping, with its wide-open vistas and well-appointed rooms. Guests will be able to enjoy experiences like a private mixology session with Longbranch cocktails and pairings, audio-guided hikes through the scrub, nighttime fly-fishing using glow-in-the-dark lines, and entertainment from a string quartet covering pop and rock songs from artists like Nirvana and Guns ‘n Roses. For each booking, Longbranch will match the cost and donate the money to The Trail Conservancy, an organization helping to protect Austin’s popular Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail.
Always the actor, McConaughey used cinematic language to describe the bourbon, equating the experience of drinking it as having a three-act structure with an exciting finale. “[Wild Turkey] 101 comes and goes with some elbow grease,” McConaughey says. “It’s a real bourbon. It’s supposed to be. But I wanted the finish of Longbranch to be a hair easier. The caramel in the third act and that subtle smoky mesquite—that sweetness and smokiness going down—that’s the difference with Longbranch.”
At a recent event in New York City, master distiller Eddie Russell acknowledged how different Longbranch is from what Wild Turkey usually produces. “It’s probably as far away from the DNA of [Wild Turkey] 101 as anything we’ve ever released,” he says. “But it’s a great whiskey and meets a different taste profile.”
So why did McConaughey partner with Wild Turkey—out of all the storied Kentucky distilleries and Texas whiskeys on offer?
The decision to collaborate with this brand and, father and son master distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell, specifically, all came down to quality of the “juice,” as McConaughey calls it, and relationships.
“Family stood out really quickly—how important family lineage is to them and to me,” he says. “The second thing that stood out was hearing them tell stories about how many times they could have changed to pander to what the new fad was…’bourbon light’ or white spirits. And they said, ‘No, we got our favorite juice right here, we’re gonna stick to it.’ I found many times in my life, you change by staying the same.”
Still, I was curious if there were any plans, or even a little bit of pressure from parent company Campari bigwigs, to release another type of whiskey under the Longbranch name—maybe a rye or some kind of cask finish. McConaughey says he and Eddie have discussed a few ideas, but for now he wants to “trust it for a minute.”
“I think [Longbranch] speaks for itself, and it’s still establishing itself,” he adds before seamlessly bringing it back to the brand campaign. “We’re sticking with that for now, but back to the ‘what if.’ Eddie’s a big ‘what iffer,’ so we’re always throwing ideas around.”
If you want to wonder and wander around the Longbranch Ranch at Walden Retreats yourself, you can book a room starting November 1 for a visit from March 2023 onward.
Rooms are priced at $425 per night, but prices vary depending on season.