Steven Soderbergh knows how to tell a story. Whether it’s on the big screen, as the Academy Award-winning director of films like Traffic, Out of Sight, Sex, Lies and Videotape and Erin Brockovich, or it’s sitting in a speakeasy in San Diego, telling the story behind his involvement with Singani 63, a Bolivian spirit brand that Soderbergh founded to bring singani to the masses.
It’s not uncommon for a celebrity to start schilling products. Instagram is clogged with #sponsoredcontent and a celebrity endorsement can mean huge sales and exposure. But Steven Soderbergh isn’t your typical celebrity endorser. He’s not on Instagram, and he’s not hoping to cash out by selling Singani 63 to the highest bidder.
Instead, Soderbergh has made it his mission to bring singani, a Bolivian spirit that is technically classified as a brandy, to the world through what he does best: telling its story.
During the course of an hour-long conversation at Room 56, a speakeasy at the Moxy San Diego, Soderbergh touches down on topics as diverse as the influx of scooters on our sidewalks (“It’s called a sidewalk… No, you need to be on the road. And if you get hit, that’s on you.”), filming a pivotal scene in Traffic with Benicio Del Toro (“As you know, to really bring it home, you have to have the condom tucked into the cigarette pack. That’s the closer. As I recall, that was his idea. He’s like, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking.’ I’m like, ‘Sounds awful. Let’s do it.’”) and the “no-a*sholes” rule he and frequent collaborator George Clooney instituted at their production company, Section 8 (“Life is too short and it’s not worth it. If somebody’s name came up and the word on them was they’re not nice, okay, you’re not on the list of people who might get this opportunity. You’re just not.”).
But get Soderbergh on the topic of singani, and he demonstrates, yet again, his passion for both the liquor and the story of how Singani 63 came to be.
“We were talking about just how easily it could have not happened. Like, really easily. It shouldn’t have happened, actually… Me being gifted this bottle of singani at the Che start-up party by someone who later told me this was a last-minute idea. And if that person hadn’t had the relationship with Casa Real [the distillery] — because I think the Casa Real singani is unique — none of this happens.”
He continues, “As a vodka drinker, I wasn’t used to smelling anything. So, I’m like, wow, really interesting, distinct bouquet… And then, I tasted it and it’s like wow, getting a lot of different notes here. Again, as a vodka drinker, I was used to, really, there’s not a lot of flavor… Immediately, I’m thinking, I need to know more.
“And it would have just stayed an anecdote … had I not figured out a way to sort of keep the singani chasing us everywhere we were shooting. Because at that point, it wasn’t available outside of Bolivia. So, we set up this supply chain to follow us throughout the six-month shoot. The shoot was going to end in Bolivia. So, by the time we ended in Bolivia, me and many of the crew members had been drinking it for six months. And that’s where the idea started to take hold. It was mostly because I honestly was thinking I don’t want to stop drinking this. How do I get it in the states?”
Soderbergh deadpans, “It’s an example of how un-selfish I am, that I didn’t just figure out how to get Casa Real to send me a case every four days. But because I’m not a selfish person, I wanted to share it,” he says, laughing. “Because believe me, that was my first impulse.”
And it’s a good thing Soderbergh isn’t that selfish, because Singani 63 was born and can now be found in stores, restaurants and bars throughout San Diego (and in many states, with distribution also recently launched in the UK).
According to Soderbergh, one of the best things about Singani 63 is that it can be used in almost any classic cocktail. “That’s the best way in, to take one of your classics, especially a simpler one, and try it with singani… Mixologists were saying, we’ve been using this as a new base spirit. The big one we’ve been told is the gateway drink is the negroni. The singani negroni.”
As for Soderbergh, he likes to keep it simple and sip his Singani 63 on the rocks (actually, on “a big rock. One big rock.”). And he’s proud to be part of the singani story. “In this case, this was not something I created. This was just something that I was exposed to that had never left Bolivia… Regardless of what happens with the brand going forward, I’m really happy to be associated with the narrative that took it outside of Bolivia. I’m really proud that. When I get hit by a bus or shot in the street by a critic, I’ll be very happy if the second half of that sentence is, also was responsible for singani being distributed outside of Bolivia. I’d be very, very happy about that. It could very easily have not happened.”