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From cinema to singani

You may not have heard of the Bolivian-born spirit singani, but it has fans worldwide, including one Hollywood heavyweight.
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SinganiIf Singani were a person, it would fit the profile of someone who plays well with others but is equally comfortable with a little bit of alone time. This clear Bolivian spirit mixes remarkably well in a broad spectrum of cocktails without hogging the spotlight, but is just as great neat or on the rocks.

Steven Soderbergh, founder of the brand Singani 63, once heard it described another way: humble.

“It keys off whatever is around it. It sort of backs off and pivots off whatever you put in it,” says Soderbergh, as he sips a glass of Singani 63 on the rocks—his preferred method, as well as mine—at Gravier Street Social in New Orleans.

Ice helps accentuate the 80-proof spirit’s floral, perfumy aroma, its soft, smooth mouthfeel (alcohol “burn” is mostly nonexistent) and fruity flavors that hint at citrus with a faint suggestion of peppery spice. It harmonizes well with fresh lime juice and sugar cane in a classic daiquiri (in lieu of rum) and also shines in more complex affairs, such as the Vieux Carre—a cocktail usually made with rye whiskey, cognac, vermouth, bitters and Benedictine, but at Gravier Street Social that day, Singani 63 replaced the rye.

I probably should mention at this point that, yes, he’s the same Steven Soderbergh who directed “Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic” (for which he won a Best Director Oscar), the “Ocean’s” trilogy, “Out of Sight,” “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” the Cinemax series “The Knick” and far too many others to name.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘Oh God, not another celebrity brand.’ But Soderbergh’s not just an honorary ambassador who shows up for a few photo ops, appears in ads and tweets some kind words about the beverage. Soderbergh is the driving force behind Singani 63 (63, as in the year he was born), a project to which he’s so far devoted nine years of his life. It took seven of those years just to get the product into the U.S.

“Everybody I talked to who’s been in [the beverage business] and done well said, ‘You’ve got to show up,’” he says. “If you’re not going to be there and if people don’t know that you’re going to be there, just don’t do it.”

When Soderbergh tells the Singani 63 story, it sounds like the sort of all-planets-aligning serendipity that only happens, well, in the movies.

The convoluted tale begins in ancient Egypt—with a grape. That grape varietal, Muscat of Alexandria, traveled across Europe via the Roman Empire. More than a millennium after Rome fell, the Spanish brought it to South America. It then found its way up to some of Bolivia’s most mountainous terrain, where it managed to thrive in the ultra-thin air. In the late 16th century, Jesuit missionaries started to turn the grapes into wine and distill their juice into a spirit that has since become tightly intertwined with the culture and heritage of Bolivia.

Jump ahead more than 400 years, to 2007, when Soderbergh was about to kick off principal photography on the second part of his Che Guevara epic, “Che.” As a start-up gift, the film’s Bolivian casting director gave Soderbergh a taste of home: a bottle of singani from top distiller (and, now, Singani 63’s producing partner) Casa Real. The American filmmaker fell in love instantly.

“What I was really struck by, more than anything, was the mathematical improbability of this grape. Moving from Egypt to Spain to South America to this specific area in Bolivia, and the altitude turns out to be the perfect spot for this grape to end up,” Soderbergh says.

The next hurdle for Singani 63—and for singani in general—is to get the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to recognize the spirit as its own unique category. The Bolivian government already has granted it Domain of Origin and Geographical Indication status, establishing it as a product native to a very specific part of Bolivia and one whose grapes must grow at an elevation of at least 5,250 feet. But in the U.S., singani is lumped in with brandy.

Soderbergh and his team have petitioned the TTB to change singani’s designation, something he hopes will happen within the next year despite the government’s seeming inability to get out of its own way.

“My point [to U.S. regulators] is, ‘I’m trying to grow a business,’” Soderbergh explains. “‘I’m trying to create some economic activity with this brand and you are hurting me by calling it something that it’s not, and you’re confusing people. … That’s just more tax dollars for you guys.’ That’s my argument, but we’ll see.”


Three To Try

Singani 63 Steven Soderbergh’s brand is the international version of Casa Real’s premium black label Gran Singani. It’s known for its pronounced floral aromatics. Rujero According to the distillery, its vineyards include some of the original grapevines Jesuits planted centuries ago. The vines grow alongside peppercorn trees, which may give Rujero singani faint pepper notes.
Singani Los Parrales Known for its smoothness, Los Parrales has won multiple gold medals, including the Great Gold at the 2010 Brussels International Wine and Spirits competition.

…Then, mix it:

Chuflay, a classic singani mixed drink, derives from shoofly, a term that 19th-century railroad workers used when they were building the rail system in Bolivia. To make it, pour 2 ounces singani into a tall glass with ice; top off with ginger ale (the traditional version) or Sprite (a modern replacement) and stir. Garnish with lime.

 

Author
Jeff Cioletti is an NYC-based beverage writer. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCioletti.

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