Let’s face it launching a new spirit onto the market can be hard.
Launching a new spirit that has an unfamiliar flavour profile can be next to impossible.
Thankfully for Singani 63, they have filmmaker Steven Soderbergh on their side.
And interestingly, when Soderbergh spoke to Spirits Business about the brand, he compared the film and spirits industries, saying that while both are “built on relationships and talent”, the latter is “like shooting a movie every day of your life – there’s just no break”.
So, what is it?
In case you haven’t heard of Singani before, it’s a spirit distilled from white Muscat of Alexandria grapes and it’s basically considered the national liqueur of Bolivia.
It was first produced around the 16th century by monastic orders who needed sacramental wine and found it easier and more expedient to also distil. The name is believed to derive from a village of the same name, that was close to where it was first made.
But how, I hear you ask, did a Hollywood film producer come across a somewhat obscure spirit from a landlocked country, that extends from the Andres to the Amazon, in South America?
Soderbergh was introduced to the grape-based drink by his Bolivian casting director while working on the film Che in 2008. “I had a very instantaneous positive reaction to it,” he recalls, “beginning with its bouquet, which is unique and very floral.
“As a vodka drinker, this was not something I was accustomed to. And then there was this very active palate, with a lot of notes coming through, and a sort of invisible finish. It seemed to check a lot of boxes, and it felt like a more exciting alternative to what I was typically drinking.
From that moment, it seems, Soderbergh was obsessed, so a production team member recommended (“perhaps half seriously”) that Soderbergh become an importer for Singani, but Soderbergh had a slightly different idea.
Short after that, Singani 63 Inc – a nod to his birth year – was founded. And since 2014, the filmmaker has worked tirelessly to not only wants to raise the profile of the Bolivian spirit but also wants to take it to the world.
How has it been doing?
The on-trade is where Singani 63 has found its biggest advocates. “We have reached a point in the States where our penetration has been very successful in the hardcore mixology community,” observes Soderbergh.
“With a small team, we have done a really good job of hitting those accounts and those markets that are considered the top cocktail-culture areas in the country.”
With the support of influential names such as Leyenda co-owner Ivy Mix, Singani 63 has secured around 1,300 accounts in 22 states.
“It’s starting to take its own momentum in ways that are encouraging,” says Soderbergh. Now, he wants to “push beyond the on-trade and go directly after the consumer”. Singani 63 has also set its sights on international distribution and recently launched in the UK.
What needs to be done?
However, Soderbergh believes the growth of his brand will be stymied if its category is not anchored in law. He claims that since Singani has “one of the narrowest criteria in the world”, with production specifications even stricter than those of Champagne, its definition should be separate to the broader ‘brandy’ category.
Singani uses only one grape variety – Muscat of Alexandria – which is grown and distilled at 5,200 feet above sea level in a designated 20,000-acre area of southern Bolivia.
According to Soderbergh, consumers will not fully understand or appreciate the category if the US government does not approve its definition. “If someone asks, ‘well, what is it like?’ And you tell them it’s not really like anything, that sounds like me just giving a sales pitch.
To have, in this case, the US government acknowledge that it’s not really like anything else, which is why it has its own category, that frames things up for people in a very different way. We spend more time telling people what it’s not than what it is, and that’s frustrating.”
Singani 63 is now working with Leblon cachaça’s lobbyists, who successfully petitioned the US government to recognise the Brazilian spirit category in 2013. “That took 10 years,” notes Soderbergh. “We are four years into our petition process and I view that as a critical marker in our timeline.”
His team is in the process of resubmitting the application for category recognition, and Soderbergh is encouraged by the progress being made. “Put it this way, the conversations are continuing,” he says.
Where will it go?
Soderbergh is embarking on an international education mission to introduce drinkers to a complex and largely unknown spirit group. He has already created a campaign centred on the idea of Singani being the “new category in town”, but will only launch it if and when the spirit’s appellation is made official.
Singani’s unfamiliar flavour profile and its diverse uses could make his task even more difficult – after all, it’s easier to communicate something that can be pigeonholed. But storytelling is what Soderbergh does best.
Despite the enormity of the task at hand, Soderbergh is pleased he opted for the road less travelled. He notes: “As difficult as it is to create this narrative from scratch for people, I’m happy at least that it is a new thing and not another version of a spirit that already exists in the minds of drinkers.
Singani, he claims, is also an egoless spirit that contributes to the “communal experience” of a cocktail. “That’s always the approach that I have tried to take in my work.
“Everything I have witnessed since I began making films was that ego is the enemy of all problem solving and it’s the primary culprit in people’s self-destruction,” he said. “I have just seen that over and over and over again. So it seems a very interesting coincidence that I hooked up with this particular spirit.”