Over oysters at Bergerac, Steven Soderbergh tells a small group of journalists that he's impressed with how cocktail-centric San Francisco is.
The director of films like sex, lies, and videotape, Ocean's Eleven, and Magic Mike, Soderbergh's newest endeavor is Singani 63, a project dedicated to taking an unknown liquor and making it so well-known that he can purchase Rhode Island (or so says Singani 63's website, anyway). He's even got an explanatory pamphlet called Profiles in Pourage that imitates Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy's similarly titled, biographical volume of senatorial bravery, right down to the typeface. (The 63 in Singani 63 refers to Soderbergh's birth year, which also happened to be JFK's death year.)
If you've never heard of it, singani is the national spirit of Bolivia. Pisco, which originates in neighboring Peru, is pretty close to a household word in booze-savvy San Francisco — there was a move a couple years ago to name Pisco Punch the city's official cocktail — yet singani languishes in relative obscurity. While both spirits are commonly categorized as brandies, singani comes only from Muscat de Alexandria grapes grown in vineyards planted at 5,250 feet or higher in elevation, and only five or six companies produce it. It tastes like a mellow eau de vie without a fruit component, responds nicely to a single cube of ice, and has aromatics that open up the longer they're allowed to breathe.
It is not Pisco. In fact, a double-blind taste-test that “humiliated” a Pisco rep is a point of pride for Soderbergh, whose love affair with singani began when the Bolivian casting director on the movie Che gave him a bottle as a gift. He was instantly smitten.
“My near-term goal was, 'Can you get me enough to supply me and the camera department for the next five months?'” he says.
Collectively downing two bottles per night on location made working on the film “bearable.” Later, a three-hour meeting that Soderbergh refers to as “no pun intended, sobering” led to him dragging 250 cases of this 500-year-old spirit to a warehouse in New Jersey, initially assuming he would just give it away. (In the intense way he tells it, it sounds as if a caravan of pack mules trekked from La Paz to Hackensack.)
Noting that he's had “weird, good luck my whole life,” Soderbergh observed how impressed mixologist friends in Manhattan were with singani's versatility. They found they could swap it in for gin, vodka, tequila, or rum, and one even made a Vieux Carré with it (a complex, multi-ingredient drink and a nod to the director's native Louisiana). Here in San Francisco — where the filmmaker once briefly lived, right out of high school — Mo Hodges of Benjamin Cooper uses singani like a mezcal, calling it “the tofu of spirits.”
When people who've already become rich and famous suddenly take an avid interest in a potentially lucrative enterprise unrelated to their core field, the question naturally arises: Is this a passion project or a toy? Soderbergh doesn't so much answer that question as blow right through it, claiming to approach singani the same way he approaches filmmaking.
“Do your own thing your own way, and shit'll just work out,” he says. “You can't second-guess yourself or you won't know where north is. I'm just trying to keep my antenna up: What feels alive? Knowing what not to do is often the most important thing. The path becomes obvious.”
Soderbergh hasn't yet visited Singani 63's Muscat of Alexandria vineyards, but after a meeting with the vice president of Bolivia, a trip is planned for June. He already has licensing rights to every country except Bolivia, so at this point, the main structural obstacle is getting singani recognized as its own beverage category to help with spreading the word. Technically, the United States government is already party to an agreement obliging it to acknowledge the spirit as such, but “I spend more time telling people what it's not — 'cause they keep calling it a brandy — than what it is,” Soderbergh says. “Anybody who makes brandy would consider this unfinished, because it's not aged.”
Eventually we shift from Bergerac to Mourad — “where all the mixologists look like movie stars,” and where the tastier of the Singani 63 cocktails contains lemon, passion fruit, yuzu marmalade, and Campari — and later to Benjamin Cooper. By that point, we've all had a few, and Soderbergh is speaking freely on any number of topics.
On Michelin stars, he's pretty acerbic: “Let's be clear: They made this shit up and now it's empirical? It's like the DSM manual. It's like The New York Times and theater. Why are we giving them that power? Why are we ceding to them?”
And on the use of antifreeze as a poisoning agent in true-crime stories, he makes no attempt to hide any ghoulish excitement: “It's a terrible way to die. They had to make it taste bad! It's terrible — the spouse is just watching it happen!”
We're drunk enough that even after that, no one looks askance at the glass they're holding, which is certainly an endorsement of sorts. And Soderbergh's confidence is infectious. But the presumed success of Singani 63 has opened the spigot of unsolicited advice. People are urging him to look into distilling gins derived from acai and quinoa, but he's not having any of that.
“Slow the fuck down,” he says. “I don't need a portfolio.”