Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, bringing his spirits brand to San Diego, says he’s not the next George Clooney
You would think that Steven Soderbergh would have had a script first.
When the Oscar-winning director was filming the movie “Che” in Bolivia in 2007, he fell in love with that country’s national spirit, singani, which is distilled from the white grape Muscat of Alexandria. Soderbergh — whose lengthy credits includes such films as “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” “Out of Sight,” the “Oceans’” trilogy, “Traffic,” “Magic Mike,” “Erin Brockovich” and the upcoming movie “The Laundromat,” starring Meryl Streep — didn’t want to leave singani behind when shooting wrapped, but the floral-forward spirit wasn’t available outside of Bolivia.
So Soderbergh improvised a solution: He’d import it himself.
“I really didn’t understand what was involved in doing that and as a result, I had to learn one step at a time how to do that,” Soderbergh said in a phone interview Monday.
Over six years, he learned one complicated, sometimes confounding, step at a time: licensing, shipping, getting a broker, distribution, liquor laws for 50 states, marketing and sales. Today, his label Singani 63 is available in 24 states, the U.K. and across San Diego, from the BevMo! in Mira Mesa to Ironside Fish & Oyster in Little Italy and Hundred Proof in University Heights.
That’s where Soderbergh will be next Thursday night, from 6-10 p.m., when he and Hundred Proof beverage director Stephen Kurpinsky will host a happy hour showcasing the versatility of singani.
Soderbergh, who usually sips his Singani 63 on the rocks, said he’s been struck by how the clear spirit been embraced by mixologists as a swap for nearly any other spirit in such cocktails as martinis, Manhattans, negronis, mojitos, Margaritas, mules, piña coladas and old fashioneds.
He said he can guarantee two things about the June 20 event. “I’ll be there and there’s going to be some really good drinks,” Soderbergh said. “It’s a little coming out party.”
Here’s a director’s cut sampling of Soderbergh’s thoughts about the spirits business, advice he got from Dan Aykroyd and which of his films pairs best with a glass of Singani 63.
What exactly is Singani 63? Grown at high elevation (a minimum 5,200 feet) in the Andes for over 500 years, singani is a white distilled spirit made from the ancient Muscat of Alexandria grape. Soderbergh’s brand, Singani 63, is produced by the largest and oldest singani maker in Bolivia, Casa Real, a fourth-generation, family-owned business. Casa Real is alone in using copper stills imported from France, versus steel, to twice-distill Singani 63.
What it’s not: Because it’s a spirit distilled from fruit, Singani 63 is categorized as a brandy by the U.S. government, which has Soderbergh a bit fired up. “The brandy designation is confusing, especially for younger people,” who associate it with a dark-colored, stuffy drink their parents or grandparents would have. The director is pushing for a dedicated singani liquor category, à la Pisco, and is taking action by launching a change.org campaign and creating a video, “It’s Not Brandy ... It’s Singani.”
What it tastes like: The Muscat of Alexandria grape produces white floral aromas and mildly citrusy flavors. Soderbergh said some liken it to gin, for the botanical notes, others compare it to tequila for its peppery quality. “As someone who drank vodka straight on the rocks, I was prepared for the secondary burn when you swallow, that’s sort of the price of entry,” he said. “This didn’t have that. Literally on my first exposure to (singani), I said ‘I’ve never tasted anything like this.’”
Why there’s no signature cocktail associated with Singani 63: Feedback from mixologists the Singani 63 team has worked with noted that the spirit can be swapped into any cocktail, even ones that use dark spirits, Soderbergh said. “This is extremely pliable,” he said. “The word they use was ‘egoless,’ somehow singani would find the proper place for itself. It would would come forward, and step back.” Typically when a spirit is brought into the market, he said, it’s encouraged to create signature cocktail for it, to give it an identity. “We really resisted that. It didn’t seem appropriate to tell extremely talented mixologists what to do,” Soderbergh said. “In the long run, that’s what we want to be selling — its incredible mixability. We should not back away from that, we should lean into that.”
What surprised him about the spirits industry: “It’s very analog,” he said, referring to the amount of face-to-face salesmanship that goes into building the brand. “It’s all very ‘Death of a Salesman’ — you start pounding on doors. It’s very Willy Loman. ... A critical aspect of the spirits business is that it can’t be delegated, that its built on one-on-one personal interactions.”
The best advice he got when launching Singani 63: “I took Dan Aykroyd to lunch, you know he has Crystal Head Vodka,” Sodergergh said. “He said, ‘Look, you have to show up. If you’re not going to show up, don’t even bother. And I mean for everything. There’s no event too small, and you never know who you’re going to meet.’” Soderbergh followed his advice and that’s why he’s on the road several times a month, hitting different markets, doing pub crawls, and connecting with strong supporters of the brand, like Hundred Proof’s Stephen Kurpinsky.
Why he’s not looking to be the next George Clooney: Soderbergh, who has worked with the actor on multiple projects, said Clooney’s $1 billion sale of his Casamigos tequila brand isn’t what he’s looking for. “There are pressures and obligations that come with that kind of transaction that I’m hoping to avoid,” he said. “What success looks like for me is sustainability to grow the brand to the point where it pays for itself,” Soderbergh said. Which isn’t to say that if a well-heeled company wants to invest in Singani 63 and has the infrastructure to to distribute it and navigate the tangle of various liquor regulations, he’d turn it down. “This sort of à la carte approach, state-by-state, country-by-country ... just isn’t efficient.”
What his dream product placement would be: Asked if he could wave a magic wand and put Singani 63 in any of his previous films, Soderbergh chose the 1998 Jennifer Lopez-George Clooney romantic caper based on the Elmore Leonard novel. “I’d put it in the hotel bar sequence in ‘Out of Sight,’” Soderbergh said, citing the sultriest scene in the steam-filled movie. With chemistry off the charts, Clooney’s bank robber on-the-lam character and Lopez’s federal marshal contemplate what-ifs as they sip bourbon. Snow falls outside as the two get closer to realizing the biggest what if. Yowza. “I would want Singani to be associated with that feeling,” Soderbergh said. Bartender, make it a double.
Hundred Proof: 4130 Park Blvd., University Heights. (619) 501-6404. hundredproofsd.com
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