By Antonia Fattizzi, Founder/President, Cork and Tin

Recently I met with the renowned movie producer and director, Steven Soderbergh, to discuss an extraordinary spirit called Singani 63 (Singani63.com) and his 6-year journey importing it from Bolivia into the United States. Produced solely in the Bolivian Andes since 1530 (5,250 feet or higher, to be exact), Singani is a pomace brandy based in white Muscat of Alexandria grapes.  It is considered the national liquor of Bolivia, consumed at national festivals, weddings, religious holidays and more. Distilled two times in 2500-liter potstills, its water comes from the highlands of Tarija.  Singani invites frequent comparisons to eau-de-vie and even gin, due to its light, clean body and floral notes. Although this product exists in the brandy category, Singani is its own entity. On a molecular level it is constructed differently from brandy and even its close Peruvian relative Pisco, and Mr. Soderbergh is actively campaigning for it to have its own designation.
Upon being introduced to Singani by his Bolivian casting director during the filming of the movie Che, it immediately became the drink of choice for both him and his crew. After researching the Singani market in Bolivia, Steven selected a premium version (Singani 63), into the USA.  It shouldn’t be hard, he thought. All he wanted was enough for he and his friends to drink and maybe sell a bit of it.

What follows is the condensed version (Part I) of a two-hour conversation that captured the history of Singani 63 and the story of how an unassuming Hollywood movie producer found himself navigating an unfamiliar industry and its complicated three-tier legal system to bring his favorite tipple from the mountains of Bolivia to the glasses of adventurous drinkers here in the United States.

On Consumption:
First and foremost, what kind of tippler is Steven Soderbergh? Steven calls his current drink of choice “the Sub-Woofer”, which is Singani 63 on the rocks.  Prior to his introduction to Singani, he was a vodka drinker with his drink of choice after a long day of shooting films “a dirty, Ketel One martini. Shaken.  That would have been my prior go-to drink if I could get it. And let’s be clear – it is really, really easy to fuck up a dirty martini. If I walk into a place, the first thing I do is order a martini. It’s shocking how many people will make a really bad one.

If I’m in a hotel or somewhere that I’m not sure about anything on the menu, I’ll order a BLT because how do you fuck up a BLT? Because it’s hard. It can be done, but it’s hard to fuck up a BLT. But a dirty martini, it’s really interesting. Just the way it’s made, the ratio – I’ve been in some really high-end joints where they’ve been awful. And then I feel bad and I drink the one, and they’re looking at you like, do you want another one, and I’m like, no I’ll take a Ketel One Citron on the rocks.”

Growing up, “my parents weren’t drinkers. I grew up in Louisiana at a time when the drinking age was 18, so I got an early start. If I were visiting Louisiana after high school, (I was in Los Angeles for a while and then I went back and stayed there) – I was a block from the campus and there was this legendary, now burnt down bar where we shot “Sex Lies”, called the Bayou. I would just hang out there a lot. I knew everybody who worked there, they had pool tables, they had a record collection that the bartenders got to play whatever they wanted – it was GREAT. A world-class BAR.  This was the 80’s, so it was before the whole fantastic wave of mixology. Back then it was just the staple items and that was it.”

Inspiration to Import:
Steven’s first experience with Singani was on set filming the movie Che, when his Bolivian casting director, who had family ties to prominent distillery Casa Real, handed a bottle to him as a gift. He was immediately smitten, and took particular note of how it made him feel. “One of things that appealed to me about Singani was that I found it very smooth. I just drank it on ice – I drink vodka that way – and I was waiting for the burn (after the swallow is the burn), and it didn’t come. That’s when I started asking, what is this stuff, where does it come from? Casa Real, Singani 63’s parent company, is hugely successful and very well run. They’ve been great. Given the sort of parameters we were working with, I was just trying to come up with something that basically was distinctive enough where, if you put that bottle on a back bar, you’d know what it is. The idea was just having something that your eye from here to there makes you know that that is Singani. But how do you do that without spending too much?”

Part of the intrigue is how challenging it is to even produce Singani. “There are a very small number of companies that make Singani because it’s very difficult to make. It has to be made in this one, 20,000 acre area in the Bolivian Andes with this ONE grape. That’s it. Casa Real controls about 75% of the market, they’re the biggest of the companies; they’ve been around a long time. Again, I didn’t know this until I started talking to people. To my mind, knowing what I know now, if you’re going to be involved in one of those companies, they’re the company you want to be involved in. But strangely, maybe because they’re so successful there, they’ve never had any desire to sell outside of Bolivia.

Steven’s creative control with the brand did not extend to what one tastes when they drink Singani.   “What you’re tasting is exactly what they sell in Bolivia as their white label (premium) brand. I responded to the flavor profile as it was. They’ve gotten this right for a long time. When I wonder whether or not I should be doing this, I just go back to the idea of, well I tried it and I liked it; and if I tried it and I liked it, and I’m somebody who likes to drink, then will there be enough other people to make this sustainable? Now that’s an open question.”

“It’s important to me that it’s done RIGHT. I’d rather fail doing it the way I think it oughta be done than succeed in a way that I think is lame and embarrassing.”

A Bit About The Bottle:
“A friend of mine, Joanna Bush, who’s worked on movies for us, designed the label and the man on the label is a friend of hers. He dressed in traditional Bolivian workers clothes with the hat. The coloring of their clothing is really remarkable, very vibrant and dense. So we talked a lot about colors, composition, and negative space, looked at a lot of other products. We were also faced with an economic consideration which is that I see a lot of stuff and we know if we spent so much money on THE BOTTLE, and I have to – this is produced in Bolivia – so my options in terms of bottling, capping, labeling, are tied into what they can do. Everything is done there, so there are certain considerations in terms of what they can do.  The 63 in Singani 63 represents my birth year.”

What Will Make Him Happy:
“At the end of the day, if it turns out to be something that I can just give to my friends over the holidays and I have a constant supply of my own, that’s not a bad result to me. Because the whole thing is like, when I had it, I was said to myself, “well I have to have it”. Also, I like learning about new stuff. A lot of the fun has just been learning a new business and talking to people and realizing, as I moved around the world, as somebody who goes to bars and restaurants, that there’s this whole air of activity going on which I had no idea. This whole ecosystem was invisible to me. To now be in it is really interesting and it’s so, even more so than the entertainment industry, you talk about evolve or die, it’s the walking definition of Darwinian.   It’s funny talking to my sales managers about the difference between NY and Los Angeles.  Everybody has told me that the L.A. market is SO tough because there’s no brand loyalty there. L.A. is so cutthroat, like, what happened yesterday doesn’t matter today.”

In the next installment, Steven Soderbergh gives DrinkUpNY.com an exclusive glimpse at his controversial campaign to engage in close personal contact with Singani 63 fans, and the results could change the course of U.S. trial law forever…

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Since 2003, Antonia Fattizzi has managed, marketed and sold boutique wines and spirits in the US market. Her passion for artisinal products propelled her to found Cork and Tin, which serves as a voice and a strategic partner for small and emerging brands.