How Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh Brought a 500-Year-Old Bolivian Liquor to the Bay Area (+ Where to Try It)
If you've ever wondered what the director of Traffic, Oceans 11, Magic Mike and The Girlfriend Experience drinks, the answer is Singani 63, on the rocks.
Stephen Soderbergh—the "poster boy of the Sundance generation," as Roger Ebert called him—discovered Singani, a 500-year-old Bolivian spirit, while on location filming Che, his 2008 biopic film about Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Made from white Muscat of Alexandria grapes brought to the Andes mountains in 1530 by Spanish monks, singani is the national drink of Bolivia.
Soderbergh fell hard and fast for the versatile, heady booze, and by the time he finished filming Che, he couldn't bear to leave Bolivia without it. As he puts it, "I decided I would bring Singani to the US even if it meant I might end up drinking the entire inventory myself." So, he procured an import license, secured the rights to sell the liquor outside Bolivia, and set about introducing it to the American market under his private label: Singani 63 (Soderbergh was born in 1963).
An ad for Steven Soderbergh's Singani 63 features the filmmaker and liquor connoisseur himself.Courtesy of Extension 765
He admits it was much more difficult than anticipated to bring a new liquor to the US market, and that if he'd known just how challenging it would be, he might not have undertaken the project. Nine years later, it is finally available in select cities, including San Francisco. Bartenders here have embraced the imminently mixable liquor, using it to make everything from a French 75 to a Sazerac.
At Bergerac in SOMA, bar manager Tammy Hagans has incorporated the Bolivian booze into one of the bohemian bar's signature "socials," served in large, prohibition-era cocktail shakers for 4-5 people. The Singani Punch combines Singani 63, lemon, grapefruit, pineapple juice and Luxardo Maraschino for a refreshing citrus concoction that goes down just a little too easy.
Foreign Cinema infuses it with chamomile for their Chamomile Sour, made with lemon, egg white and simple syrup. Mourad takes it in a tropical direction with their Passion Fruit and Yuzu cocktail, consisting of Singani 63, lemon, passion fruit, yuzu marmalade, and Campari. At Blackbird, you'll find it mixed with tomato-infused Cocchi, Pamplemouse, cinnamon and Sauvignon Blanc in The Nightshade. In fact, you'll find Singani 63 cocktails on more than two dozen bar menus in the Bay Area, ranging from Benjamin Cooper to Tony's Pizza Napoletana to The Front Porch to Bird Dog in Palo Alto.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (aka "TTB") has classified Singani as a brandy, and strictly speaking, it is distilled wine. But Soderbergh believes the clear liquor should have its own classification, like Pisco and Cachaça do. After all, Singani has both a DO (Designation of Origin) and a GI (Geographical Indication), which requires that the grapes used to make it are grown at a minimum altitude of 5,250 feet and only within the confines of the historic home of Singani in the Andes mountains of Bolivia.
During a recent bar crawl in San Francisco, Soderbergh suggested that Singani 63 can be substituted for the main liquor in just about any cocktail imaginable, prompting me to ask if it should be described as the tofu of liquor.
"I prefer to think of it as the bacon of liquor," he replied. "It makes every cocktail taste just a little bit better."
By the time we sloshed into our seventh round of Singani cocktails at the third bar of the night, the bacon claim had escalated: the Bolivian spirit now had super powers, according to Soderbergh. "This shit will make you invisible." // Singani 63, singani63.com