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The American director, producer and screenwriter, Steven Soderbergh, will tell you that making an obscure spirit in the high Andes of Tarija, Bolivia is not a straightforward affair. In 2014, Mr. Soderbergh embarked on a journey to bring Bolivia’s national drink, singani—which he stresses is not a pisco and is not brandy—to a broader international market. Other than the obvious issues of growing vines in challenging topography, Soderbergh, who hasn’t visited much wine country, save for a few vineyards in California and France, is pretty new to this game. He writes movies, tweets novels, and produces blockbuster films. His latest challenge is establishing lasting brand traction and understanding for his label, Singani 63. What Soderbergh aims to do is make the Bolivian spirit a bar staple in markets like America, where vodka, gin and whisky are largely understood to be the only solid bases of a good cocktail. In short, he wants to change the way people experience and think about booze.
“When I was growing up in Louisiana, it seemed to me at the time like there were literally three cocktails: a martini, a Tom Collins or a Long Island Iced Tea,” says Soderbergh. “But now, it seems like the golden age of the cocktail, with obscure spirits like singani being used to make classic drinks more interesting. It’s what brought me back to Bolivia and I want to share this national drink with the world.”
Unlike vodkas or whiskies, Singani 63 has a taste that is clean and floral rather than stiff and antiseptic. It’s largely made from the white Muscat of Alexandria grape, that is considered an ‘ancient vine’ as it’s believed to be one of the world’s oldest genetically unmodified grape vines. It is also believed to have traveled from Africa, and cultivated throughout Europe before it was brought to South America, and eventually Tarija, Bolivia. Here, it became the ideal grape and the ultimate expression in today’s production of singani. The grape’s thick skin allows it to thrive at such extreme altitudes as the Andes, where the sun and lower oxygen levels are punishing. This unique environment creates a taste unlike any other white Muscat of Alexandria grape cultivated in other parts of the world.
“Part of the reason why we get such great results from this grape is that here in Tarija, the soil is not so great,” says Soderbergh. “The grape has to struggle a great deal to survive, and therefore develops a unique character. And considering its character, I find it so interesting that this grape has traveled a long way to get to this place that isn’t very hospitable toward it, and still found its ultimate expression. It’s a kind of a funny and weird narrative of this grape finding the perfect place for it to be, which turns out to be not a very nice place for it. And yet it continues to deliver what it couldn’t deliver literally anywhere else in the world.”
There are about 1,000 singani producers in Bolivia’s wine growing region. The most successful and acclaimed among them is Casa Real, with whom Mr. Soderbergh teamed up to help blend and experiment with his own label, Singani 63. When Soderbergh began this journey, he says that it was critical to find the right people to help him understand the process of creating the drink he fell in love with while filming Che in 2007. At the time, his Bolivian casting director brought a bottle to him in Madrid. Soderbergh says he instantly fell in love with singani and spent the next couple of years having it smuggled to him wherever the spirit could not be imported.
Casa Real helped Soderbergh understand the complexities that formulate a well made singani, and explained all the adjustments that local wine producers make to create vineyards, such as trucking in millions of tons of earth and constantly testing the soil of Tarija’s arid, inhospitable lands. The Casa Real family, for instance, approached Israel and South Africa, two countries with considerably arid environments and challenging landscapes, to advise them on irrigation solutions. Casa Real’s singani production is the wine region’s most technologically advanced, employing French copper stills and Italian-designed machinery that allows them and Soderbergh to produce the most refined singani on the market.
Over the next six months, Soderbergh plans to bring his Singani 63 to places like Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s second largest city, because Casa Real wants to test the market there. Given that singani is such a well established and beloved national drink and a part of Bolivia’s cultural heritage, Santa Cruz might offer some insight into how people are consuming singani, and how that might translate to the US consumer. Soderbergh and his team are also learning singani cocktail culture, in what ways the people of Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, are playing with singani, and inventing some of their own signature drinks too. It’s a primer for learning what customers find interesting about singani and what the limits of their culinary tastes might be. Soderbergh is essentially learning the position of his brand in Bolivia and how that can inform his market approach in the US and beyond.
“People obviously like wines and liquors from places they know, like from Italy and France and Napa Valley,” says Soderbergh. “And my impression is also that, in the last 10-15 years, people have been making a lot of good wines and spirits from all over the place, different from where we normally think of a good red wine growing for example. Not necessarily in the iconic valleys of the world that we associate with great wines. Recently somebody gave me a bottle of red that they made and it was great. Thankfully, I think this snootiness factor is starting to diminish.”