It took a rare grape to grab the attention of Steven Soderbergh. The famed Hollywood director/producer/screenwriter, best known for the Oceans 11 movies and Magic Mike had his first taste of singani—a spirit made from grapes grown in the high altitude of the Andes Mountains in Bolivia—on the set of Che about eight years ago. The rest, they say, is history, and Soderbergh began a multi-year quest to bring Singani 63 from the mountains of South America to drinkers everywhere.
The smooth, clear liquid, distilled from white muscat Alexandria grapes, has been produced since the 16th century, and is made exclusively with fruit that grows at elevations of 5,250 feet or higher. The potent spirit has a distinct sweetness, as well as the impressive ability to leave imbibers free of next-day hangovers.
Here, Soderbergh talks about growing his brand, keeping his eye on the prize, and why he’s just another guy hawking a (little-known) liquor brand in an ever-growing market.
What is Singani and how did you first get hooked?
I was first exposed to it back in Madrid in 2007, when my Bolivian casting director gave me a bottle. As mostly a vodka drinker, I wasn’t used to drinking something at that proof level that did not involve burn.
I think the biggest misconception is that it’s a pisco, because of the way it’s labeled. I spend more time explaining what singani isn’t because how it has been categorized. [Note: singani is defined by the TTB (tax and tariff bureau) as brandy and is awaiting reclassification.] To be called singani, we have the narrowest criteria of any spirit on the planet. It must be produced from one type of grape, grown in one 20,000 acre area in Bolivia, 5,200 hundred feet in the air. If you don’t have that, you can’t call it singani.
We’re occupying a fairly unique space as a spirit because of what it is, because of its flexibility. You can use it to replace rum, vodka, gin, whiskey in some cases.
Tell us about bringing the spirit to the States.
My near-term goal [after I first tasted it] was to get enough of it for the rest of the shoot. And it wasn’t until we neared the end of the shoot that a couple of people from the crew who had kind of gotten hooked on it said, you should bring this back to the States. I think I made the mistake of thinking it would be really easy to bring a brand out.
I always say to people: If you are tasked with a big project, just start. Pick a point and just start. And so I did. I called my accountant and said, “I want to import this liquor,” and he said, “You need to hire a broker.” And just step-by-step I would just ask, “What’s next? What do I need to do next?”
Having said that, when the stuff landed in New Jersey and it was serious, and I started having conversations with a brand management company, I started to understand what was really involved, and that was—no pun intended—very, very sobering.
Did you feel up to the task?
I gave myself some parameters. I gave myself a number and a length of time and I said having spent this much money and this much time, if the trajectory doesn’t look good, then I’m done and I’ll just drink it myself.
… and give out a lot of Christmas presents.
Yeah, exactly—I’ll just give it away. And I violated that a little bit—but only because it’s moving quickly and the people that I’m working with who do have experience in this business are saying this is unusual. They’re saying the response from the mixologists is really positive. They like that it’s new and they like that it has a 500-year-old history.
So, in the scheme of the brand, what is success to you?
What would be gratifying is an acknowledgment of [the spirit’s] unique qualities and status among other established spirits. I’d like it if people who are knowledgeable [about spirits] would consider it a staple. That if you’re someone who likes to have a well-stocked bar, you’d have singani.
You’re not just another celebrity with a liquor brand; you’re dealing with a product people have likely never heard of.
I don’t think about odds. I just followed what I found compelling. I’m going on the belief—in the same way that I do in my day job—that people know the difference between something that’s sincere and something that’s manufactured by committee. People like things that feel personal.
You don’t put a movie in your mouth. But with singani it’s a very primal, personal thing and there’s no convincing somebody that they like it. Trying to convince someone to try something is tricky because at the end of the day, when it hits their tongue, it’s either going to work for them or it’s not.
What has surprised you the most in this journey of launching a product and bringing it to market?
I knew [the spirit business] was competitive, but the way in which it’s competitive is very different than the movie business. With movies, if you’ve managed to make something, even if no one picks it up to be distributed, there’s a way for you to get it out there. You can post it. You can put it on Vimeo. You can put it on YouTube. With a spirit, if you can’t get on the back bar, you’re done.