In 2008, while filming his two-part Che Guevara biopic in Bolivia, the director Steven Soderbergh happened upon little known local spirit called singani. Although widely consumed in the South American country for almost five centuries, the grape brandy’s appeal had never stretched far beyond Bolivia’s borders, and certainly not to the United States. But when he tasted it for the first time, the Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven director knew he’d found something special.
Soderbergh spent nearly six months in South America working on Che, and a bottle of singani was never far from his hand. Even when the crew was filming outside of Bolivia they managed to develop a supply chain so that the editing room was always stocked with the spirit. “It was really personal and immediate,” Soderbergh told me of his first experience drinking singani. He was impressed with how smooth it was, with its floral notes and soft fruits. “As we were really getting near the end of the shoot, I was getting kind of sad. Like, ‘Oh, this is going to be the last of it.’”
Soderbergh brought back a supply of singani when he returned to the States. But his appreciation for the drink soon turned into an obsession, and he realized he wanted to spread the gospel of singani to a wider audience. So in January 2014 he debuted his own brand, Singani 63. He’s focused on expanding into cities with robust cocktail cultures, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Washington, D.C. The spirit has proved popular with bartenders, particularly those known for embracing new products and exotic ingredients, and the brand has sold as much through the first half of this year as it had sold all of last year.
In July, I met Soderbergh during a day of pouring rain in New Orleans, where he was attending Tales of the Cocktail, the spirit industry’s annual weeklong conference. Soderbergh was sitting on a couch in an empty lounge, the day after hosting a raucous party dubbed The Crescent City Affair, which served as one of the official Spirited Dinners hosted during the festival.
Soderbergh, who has been on a hiatus from the film industry since 2013, was in town pounding the pavement to promote his product. “At the end of the day, everybody’s gotta make their case,” he told me.
The director briefed me on the drink’s backstory. Singani is made from the Muscat of Alexandria grape, which took a circuitous route to Bolivia, from Egypt to Spain, and then to South America via Spanish missionaries. “It finds its way to Tarjia”—a highland city in southern Bolivia—“where the altitude and terrain are so extreme that this particular grape has to struggle to survive and in doing so builds up an abnormally thick skin, which is where all the aromatics are,” Soderbergh said. “So just by chance, this grape finds the perfect place to be.”