Imbibe caught up with film director Steven Soderbergh while he was in London recently to introduce the UK on-trade to Bolivian spirit singani, and specifically his brand, Singani 63
Steven Soderbergh didn’t set out to diversify from film into the world of drinks. Bolivia’s national spirit, never before officially launched outside of its home country but with history dating back roughly 500 years, found him. What led him to this was a gift he received while working on the film Che.
‘My Bolivian casting director decided to give me a bottle of singani while we were in Madrid. He had to go to the Bolivian quarter to buy a bottle,’ he says.
He first tried it on the rocks, the way he drank vodka. ‘My immediate reaction was, “I’ve got to call vodka on the phone and tell it I met somebody.”’
So began the process of bringing this previously unknown spirit to the world, first by approaching the producer of the bottle he’d been given, Casa Real, to create a new product. ‘We talked about how to distinguish it from their other products, so they said they’d make 63 from only estate grapes.’
Those grapes are Muscat of Alexandria, the only grape permitted for singani production. Bolivian law also stipulates that grape growing and production must occur at 1,600m above sea level.
While that neat serve was his first exposure, the push for Singani 63 is about its mixability. ‘Its versatility is amazing to me. That you can make a Vieux Carre with it, swapping it out for a dark spirit... that’s unusual.’
As a result, bartenders have been a focus for the brand since the outset. ‘The people behind the bar are driving cocktail culture,’ he believes. ‘They are what’s new, and what’s exciting about what’s happened in the last 15 years.’
Soderbergh acknowledges that he’s had to learn a lot about the drinks industry along the way. ‘Even as a professional drinker, you could have taken everything that I knew about the booze business, put it into an empty box, and increased the emptiness of that box,’ he says.
He has since been filling that box, in part through talking to leading bartenders in the US such as Jim Meehan, founder of PDT in New York, as well as The 86 co-founder Simon Ford. And with the launch of Singani 63 in the UK, that focus on bartenders and the on-trade continues.
‘It’s a sophisticated and extremely competitive market. The only way in is through triple-A level mixologists taking it on, and you work out from there. There’s no other move,’ he says. ‘We can’t carpet-bomb television. We’ve got to lead with the product.’
Speaking of television, there are plans to bring together his two industries. ‘I shot a commercial for this, based on these ads in the States that the pharmaceutical industry run. Our campaign is: “Ask your bartender if Singani 63 is right for you.”’
For Soderbergh there’s a difference in his day job and working on Singani 63. ‘Unlike when I work on a movie or TV show, this isn’t about me. I’m telling the story of singani. I’m talking about Bolivia, about this legacy spirit, and about Casa Real. I love talking about that. I don’t have to take that wire-brush hot shower after a day of talking about Singani, unlike when I’m doing a junket for a movie.’
The degree of his involvement in the brand admittedly differs from some celebrity-backed spirits. ‘It depends on how you want people to perceive it. If you have a brand in which somebody who’s famous is just the face of that brand, you are targeting a consumer who’s okay with that. In our case, we’re not even initially targeting the consumer – we’re targeting bartenders. And they are not cool with that.’
What’s next for Singani 63? ‘Casa Real, in addition to their white label and black label, have a triple-distilled version called Don Lucho, which I also have the rights to. That stuff is sick,’ he says. ‘But we’re a long way from that. That’s years down the road, when people know what singani is.’
So that’s the first job, and one that’s now underway in the UK too. ‘If I get run over by a London black cab tomorrow, and the second half of the sentence of what I was known for is “he was the first person to take singani out of Bolivia”, I’d be really proud of that.’
To begin exploring Singani 63’s potential for yourself, get in touch with UK agent Distillnation.