The Soderbergh adventure

14 May, 2015

Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh tells Hamish Smith why his niche passion could have global box-office appeal.


CONTRARY TO APPEARANCE, THE PHOTO TO YOUR RIGHT IS NOT THE POSTER FROM A SPOOF HOLLYWOOD PRODUCTION OF THE LIFE OF VLADIMIR PUTIN. It is, in fact, a marketing shot for a spirit brand launched by Steven Soderbergh. The Hollywood film director  - who provided the head (Putin the nipples and horse) - is currently better known for Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven, than Bolivian eau de vie – but he would quite like this to change. 

“I have had crazier ideas before,” Soderbergh says down the phone, just over a year after launching the brand in New York, the city in which he lives. “My family are bemused by it. They see it is as me being on a frolic on my own. But it’s not any crazier than deciding to make films for a living.” 

While other US luminaries have plumped for the easy sell of vodka or tequila, Soderbergh has gone exotic. He is marketing a spirit few knew existed – the trade included. To that we must say touché. But the fact remains there can’t be many more difficult sells in the spirits world than unaged Bolivian brandy. 

His quest is grand. It is to pluck the brandy Singani out of the thin-aired obscurity of the Bolivian Andes and take it to the wider world. At the risk of sounding like a Hollywood voiceover: against the odds, Steven Soderbergh wants to build a new spirits category.

Which begs the question, why? The answer is it’s a classic love story. “When the five-month Che shoot in Bolivia ended I was convinced that this was a unique spirit,” says Soderbergh emphatically. “The Che crew got hooked on it. I thought it would be a great idea to take it to America.”

The movie Che arrived in 2008 but you would have to fast-forward through many Soderbergh films and TV series before Singani made its first appearance outside of Bolivia. 

The deal struck with producer Casa Real means Soderbergh owns the brand spin-off Singani 63 (named after the year he was born) while the Muscat of Alexandria distillate continues to be produced under licence. The first shipment didn’t land in the US until 2012 and it was a good year later, in January 2014, that the first bottle was sold. Reassuringly, perhaps, entering the US market is difficult for everyone, A-list stars included.  

“When we started in New York a year ago we targeted the top mixologists,” says Soderbergh. “We have 45-50 on-premise accounts in Manhattan. Jim Meehan [owner of PDT] took to it immediately. He liked it because he hadn’t heard of it and because of its versatility. He said you can make some really subtle cocktails with it. I’m taking that as good news.”

Soderbergh prefers his Singani 63 over rocks. Previously a vodka drinker, he now drinks nothing else. It would be marketing suicide to say anything else but Soderbergh clearly loves the stuff. 

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