Steven Soderbergh’s Crazy Quest to Bring a Bolivian Brandy to American Bars

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
April 4 2014 2:50 PM

The Importer!

Steven Soderbergh is in love with a Bolivian eau de vie. Now he wants America to fall in love with it, too.

This interview, which concerns a chance venture of a filmmaker self-identified as the luckiest bastard you ever saw, has been condensed and edited.

FADE IN:

INT. DREAM DOWNTOWN HOTEL (MANHATTAN) - COCKTAIL HOUR

This is a Mexican restaurant off the lobby of a luxury hotel leaking Eurodisco vibes. The rear of a head—thin hair buzzed close—hovers above a booth in a corner of the uncrowded dining room. Camera dollies around to appraise the man’s face—bold glasses framing an active gaze, a strong nose like the beak of a rara avis. Here is STEVEN SODERBERGH, 51, enjoying his drink, and here’s the thing: His drink is his drink.

Soderbergh has stumbled into a side hustle importing alcohol. This spring—25 years after Cannes toasted him as “the future of cinema”—he is striving to bring a clear brandy called singani from the mountains of South America to the bloodstreams of the north. He describes this endeavor to an INTERVIEWER while scooping guacamole from a glass-skull bowl. 

                                    INTERVIEWER
                        Can you estimate the total number of hours you’ve
                        spent on this project?

                                    SODERBERGH
                        Does that include the time I’ve spent drinking it by
                        myself?

                                    INTERVIEWER
                        Yes.

                                    SODERBERGH
                            (ticking his eyeballs across
                            a mental abacus)    
                        Four thousand. So, if Malcolm Gladwell’s right,
                        I’ve got a long way to go.

* * *

INSERT -- The rear cover of Soderbergh’s necker—a recipe booklet to be tied around each bottle of his specially labeled hooch. The text explains, “Singani 63 is the culmination of a 50-year, privately funded project known as the Steven Soderbergh adventure, the purpose of which is to identify the exceptional in all areas of human endeavor.”

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Singani hails from Bolivia, but Soderbergh made its acquaintance in Spain, which happens to be the spirit’s spiritual home-away-from-home: The variety of grape essential to it arrived with the conquistadors, who, after a long week of mowing Incan civilization into ruins, liked to refresh their souls with a bit of sacramental wine. In the 1500s, merchants began making a firewater as brilliant as the riches of Potosí. In 1825, when Bolivia declared her independence, a national liquor proclaimed itself organically. The bond is somewhat similar to that between Peru and pisco (to which singani is itself somewhat similar).

Cut to 2007: Soderbergh is shooting Che, an intimate epic starring Benicio Del Toro as the Marxist guerrilla. Principal photography begins in Spain, acting as a stand-in for Bolivia. The Madrid start party jumps off when Rodrigo Bellott, the Bolivian casting director, cracks open some of his homeland’s traditional drink.

Having once as a foolish juvenile been trampled by a flock of Wild Turkeys, Soderbergh abandoned whiskey long ago. He had casually supposed that vodka on the rocks would be his stand-by adult beverage. Then singani floated up to his pleasure receptors as a softly fragrant lace of silky fruit and floral spice—a violet candy recomposing his approach to relaxing after a Martini Shot.

“There were three things: I could drink it on the rocks. It landed me in a place that felt really good and did so in pretty short order, and I also noticed, the next day, I felt fine.” The casting director kept supplying Soderbergh throughout the shoot, and he got the whole camera department hooked. The film wrapped, and the thought was, “It’d be really great if we could have this in the United States.”

Soderbergh’s crewmate hooked him up with Casa Real, the largest of three major singani distillers. His accountant put him in touch with a liquor brokerage. His government introduced his shins to some regulatory hurdles, but by 2010, he had 250 cases of 80-proof singani occupying part of a New Jersey warehouse. Each bottle bore Soderbergh’s unique label—Singani 63, a reference to his year of birth—and he gently toyed with an idea of himself as a baronial presence striding the controlled-substance arena. (Twice in conversation, he teases himself for entertaining a Tony Montana fantasy.) Then his accountant put him in touch with a professional experienced in bringing liquor to market. “It was one of the more sobering three-hour conversations I’ve ever had. By the time he was done with his dissertation on the business, I was slumped there with my chin on the table.”

We might distill the progress of Singani 63 to a montage: Soderbergh, the director of Traffic, cultivates a new appreciation for the complexities of moving intoxicants across borders. Soderbergh, the director of Kafka, toils to satisfy the bureaucracies of the FDA and the ATF. Soderbergh puzzles at screwy bottle caps and bottlenecks too narrow to accommodate speed pourers. Soderbergh lunches with Dan Aykroyd, who shares lessons gained as a founder of Crystal Head Vodka. [AYKROYD (V.O.): “If you’re not willing to go out and meet people, it’s not gonna work.”] Soderbergh borrows a bar from Scott Gerber for a night of R&D mixology.

Smash cut to the corner banquette: “If I’d had even a tangential knowledge of what was involved, I wouldn’t have done it. But I’d already ordered the 250 cases.”

Launching the product has been, like painting and writing, a significant project of Soderbergh’s so-called retirement, an event you may have missed if you don’t pay a lot of attention to showbiz news. Also, you may not have noticed Soderbergh’s retirement if you do pay a lot of attention to such things because he’s actually working all the time. After drinks, he will place phone calls concerning a sequel to the banana-hammock bildungsroman Magic Mike, which will be directed by his producing partner and tumescently titled Magic Mike XXL. Later, in his edit bay, he will make final tweaks to The Knick, an upcoming miniseries starring Clive Owen. A day later, his production of The Library, a stage play by Scott Z. Burns, will enter previews at the Public Theater. But singani provokes his most vexing challenges.

The supply of 250 cases has dwindled. This is partly due to the personal thirst of the singani kingpin, who last year told a reporter, “Putting me in charge of a hard-liquor importing business is like having Clooney running a girls’ dormitory.” The urgent need to re-up is also due to the success his sales director has had at bars such as this one, where the menu lists a Singani Sour (made with lemon juice and muddled grapes) at $15. “Literally, in the next 24 hours, we’re gonna place another order.” But should it be 500 cases? 750? 1000? How is a naïf to know? The spreadsheets wafting in his direction are not strictly helpful. “I’m used to reading a quarterly report from a movie studio. That looked pretty simple compared to this.”

* * *

                                SODERBERGH
                        This stuff has no burn. And then after two of them,
                        you’re just invisible.
                            (beat)
                        It’s not a drunk; it’s a buzz.
                            (cupping 10 fingers to
                            indicate an ellipse concentric
                            to his upper brain)
                        It’s all up here -- it’s not slurry, not wobbly.

                                INTERVIEWER
                        I’ve seen you discuss this turning-invisible thing.
                        Is that a common expression?

                                SODERBERGH
                        There was a superhero aspect to the buzz, and
                        to be able to turn invisible would be, to me, the
                        best superpower. My entire livelihood is based on
                        the ability to observe, so invisibility would really
                        be a great tool in my work.

* * *

Soderbergh has a hunch that the timbre of singani and the tenor of its buzz have to do with Andean terroir and high-altitude distillation. This is only a hunch. He has no great urgency to develop the sophistication of a true gourmet or the word-hoard of a diligent dilettante. He simply loves the stuff and thus ranks as an amateur in the best sense. Tasting notes praise Singani 63’s aromas (geranium, cherry sorbet, peach custard) and its finish (elderflower, lychee, citrus oil), but the importer does not tend toward complex analyses: “It does have some kind of floral thing going on, and I wish I knew why.” Culinary historians will tell you the eggnog-like singani drink called sucumbé was a tradition of African slaves and that the tall singani cooler called the chuflay was rigged up by railroad engineers. Soderbergh, keen to position his brand in maximally accessible terms, says, “This makes a fucking awesome sangria.”

This is an experiment in independent booze distribution. The sole financial support for Singani 63 is Soderbergh’s discretionary income. He is willing to assume some further risk in pursuit of discovering a niche for singani in U.S. culture, but he cannot keep throwing his extra money into an absurd vortex. Rolling out the product in New York City, he aims to make deals with 25 bars within nine months.

He channels business jargon gingerly: “The goal is to create a paradigm that we can somehow convince people is scaleable.” At worst, he will have invested in a good story about the time he tried to import liquor. At best, he’ll attract a deep-pocketed partner and expand across the country, while also retaining control of the brand’s voice. Which is, from a mass-marketing perspective, an intriguingly perverse condition.

His early experience as Singani 63’s chief copywriter involved a disappointing lesson: It would be against the code of industry practice to advertise with the tagline This &%#! will #&%! you up!: “You can’t do it. You’re not allowed to discuss the effect it has on people. I wonder why you can’t, when that’s clearly the point. Maybe we can backdoor our way in? ‘We’re not allowed to say, This shit will fuck you up, but ….’ ” He says, “It’s hard for me imagine a scenario where there will be an ad on national TV for this because any ad I make will be weird.”

Soderbergh’s great artistic gift is analytic curiosity. Formal critique is central to his creative approach; his characters inhabit process-driven procedurals. You can take the genre-deconstructionist out of Hollywood, but you can’t take away his meta-sensibility: “The only way I can write ad copy is to discuss the construct of the sell, so you feel like you’re in on something, at heart, a little bit.” The inspiration for his forthcoming social-media campaign is Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, an epistolary novel in the voice of a baseball pitcher whose letters home illuminate a story he’s too dim to see. “It’s a masterpiece of elliptical information release,” he says. “We’re gonna create somebody who is the singani person responsible for the Twitter account, and we’re gonna make them a total fuck-up, so there’s another narrative going on.” 

He has dallied with a similar concept on the Twitter account representing Extension 765, his online boutique selling art, memorabilia, cool t-shirts, and an Ocean’s Eleven mousepad. In July, the Extension 765 Twitter account was ostensibly run by a Danish-American intern named Hanne Klitbutten, who dispatched office gossip about her existentially desperate boss.

The Soderbergh character of the feed harangues his underlings with depressive monologues about the cultural bankruptcy of contemporary life, then cheers himself up with lunch at Nobu. Hanne is not impressed with his business acumen.

* * *

The interviewer ought to ask Soderbergh whether his liquor adventure is an expression of something like a midlife crisis, but the question seems rude and the correct answer seems obvious and who wants to quash a quinquagenarian’s fun, especially when he’s offered to grab the check? The best buzz his product delivers is the thrill of devising creative release plans and improvising upon the art of the deal.

                                    SODERBERGH
                        In terms of the sensation, it’s kind of similar to
                        working with Harvey when we were doing
                        Sex, Lies
. He was the king of zigging while other
                        people were zagging.
                             (beat)
                        But he was also really good at creating a
                        controversy around stuff, and I’m
                             (chuckling)
                        not sure how to do that.

INSERT -- The Singani 63 “shelf talker”—a small in-store ad designed to trap your eye as it scans the displays. The illustration: A before-and-after drawing seemingly snipped from a cheap magazine ad for a baldness cure. The text: “THE SECRET TO GROWING NEW HAIR ... has not been discovered, but that doesn’t mean that Steven Soderbergh has given up hope. In fact, while he waits for the miracle cure, he sure likes him some Singani 63 …”

                                        SODERBERGH
                                 (looking up from the card
                                 to somehow nod at the
                                 crown of his own noggin)
                            See how personal this is!

* * *

INSERT -- A noirish napkin inked with a sketch of Slate’s singani gimlet, the name of which nods to a compact masterpiece.

       The Limey

        2¼ ounces Singani 63
        ¾ ounce lime cordial (or Rose’s lime juice)
        orange bitters (optional, optimal)       

        Build in glass. Stir with ice.
        Drink & repeat & fade out.                   

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