“I always drink it on the rocks. I let it sit for about five minutes, let the ice melt a little bit, and then I hit it.”
Steven Soderbergh is digging into some hummus across from me during a particularly sweltering July day as I position myself on a Union Jack-covered bench, sipping the famed director’s odd new obsession: Singani 63.
Soderbergh discovered the drink—a centuries-old, clear, grape-based spirit native to Bolivia—while filming Che in 2008 and, almost on a whim, decided to bring the spirit to the U.S.
“It was one of those (probably singani-induced) conversations where people were like, ‘You should take this to the U.S., man, that would be great!’ The question of whether or not I should’ve just bought cases and made a personal stash remains to be seen,” said Soderbergh. “We got lucky, in a sense, because people had never heard of it. The drink has a 500 year story and no one really knew about it because they don’t export it. It’s getting out there now because of that one night where I said, ‘Why not?'”
After bunny-hopping over the hoops, hurdles, and bureaucratic red tape required to import and sell liquor, Soderbergh’s beloved spirit (marked with a ’63’ as a tribute to his birth year) arrived. It was introduced to eager drinkers in New York and Los Angeles in 2014, expanded to San Francisco this year, and has quickly found deep roots at bars like PDT and Dutch Kills. The drink has become something of an under-the-radar bartender favorite for its chameleon-like versatility in cocktails (what other spirit can replace both tequila in a margarita and rye in a Vieux Carre?) and ability to stand on its own two feet as a smooth sipper.
Photo: Facebook/Singani 63
To say Soderbergh has jumped in with both feet to the liquor world would be an understatement—he is, without a doubt, committed to becoming a barroom fixture.
“This is a second coming of indie in my life. I’ve tried to understand what’s applicable from the entertainment industry and what’s not. The competition to get on a back bar is harder than to get eyeballs on a movie you’ve made. If you’ve made a movie, you can just post it on Vimeo. If you don’t get on the back bar, you’re nowhere. I’m ruined for bars now. I can’t watch [a movie] without analyzing the filmmaking. It’s the same thing when I go into a bar these days.”
In a conversation that touches on everything from Winston Churchill to Kevin Durant, Soderbergh waxes poetic about Singani 63’s lofty vision—and doles out some seriously great life advice.
On getting your hands dirty.
“There are a lot of celebrities that align themselves with brands, but they’re not creating the content. I usually don’t literally like my face to be out there. In this case, though, it’s more appropriate because I’m attempting to shift whatever credibility I’ve built up in another business to this. In order for people to meet me halfway, I have to be out there. Dan Aykroyd told me that when we had conversations about Crystal Head [vodka, Aykroyd’s brand]. The big take away was if you’re not willing to show up and put in the hours, don’t do it.”
On Kevin Durant and hard work.
“Being where you ought to be physically increases your chances of meeting the people you need to know. At a certain point, it becomes an act of location and will.
Kevin Durant said—how does it go?—’Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’ I see it all the time. My father was like that. He got up early, went to work, worked all day, and was at the dining room table working until 11 ‘o clock each night. There was never a sense that it was anything but what he wanted to do. If he got interested in something, he obsessed. I think I absorbed all that.
I didn’t even have a passing interest in liquor before I decided to bring Singani into the United States. No sense of it. It remains to be seem whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I know a lot of good people, bright people, who think themselves out of situations because the fear of failure paralyzes them. Luckily, I’ve always been able to not be derailed by the possibility of something not working. The point is to start, just start.”
Photo: Wikicommons/Keith Allison
On strict government oversight.
“I had the Singani in a warehouse in New Jersey for a while when I was figuring out what to do with it, and I was consuming a certain amount of it on my own. At one point, the government started noticing how the cases were being moved out of the warehouse but not being sold. We had to explain, ‘Oh, actually, it’s just Steven drinking it at home.’ That’s how granular their attention is. Is it bad when your personal consumption is enough to trigger a phone call from a government agency?”
By all accounts, Winston Churchill was pretty much lit the entire second World War. This guy was on champagne and bourbon whenever he wanted.
On Poland and the cocktail scene.
“It’s catching on in Europe. A distributor in Poland e-mailed us and wanted to sell it. Isn’t that so random? They’re first in line now since they were tracking things enough to have it on their radar.
I’m stepping into a river that’s been flowing a long time. I want to do an ad with the bottle that just says, ‘The 500-year start-up.’
My story is so different than [people] making [liquor] on its own. There are so many spirits being made in Brooklyn, it’s crazy. Most people I talk to don’t think this is a [cocktail] bubble. The expansion of cocktail culture is a secular change, not a cyclical one. It has a long tail. A lot of people drink, and a lot of people are becoming more educated about what they drink. The open question is what the ‘new normal’ is going to be.”
On drinking at work.
“I don’t think there’s been a film in the past few decades that got people talking about drinking as much as Mad Men. That just started a whole, left-field thing that contributed to the renewed interest in cocktail culture. Everyone I know who isn’t in a state of necessary sobriety would watch the show and be like, ‘God, that must’ve been so great to like, get out of a bad meeting and walk into your office and have a drink.’ I know people who have brought it back. It’s hard not to look at it and feel somewhat wistful. But can you imagine, like, if you worked at a corporation now…and poured a drink at two in the afternoon? It’s tempting to do it just to see how quickly you would be fired.”
On Winston Churchill’s drinking and morality.
“By all accounts, Winston Churchill was pretty much lit the entire second World War. This guy was on champagne and bourbon whenever he wanted. I find that kind of moral overlay very interesting because it’s such a construct that we’ve invented. There’s not inherent immorality if you want to alter your consciousness from one state to another. To me, that’s not a moral question, it’s just a question of individual choice. It’s something in the last few centuries that has been invented.
At a very young age now, people who drink are interested in what they drink and want to try new stuff. I think of when I was 21, what I thought of when you walk into a bar. I would drink martinis. i was always a vodka person, so I was drinking vodka martinis and that was it. Back then, though, there were like three drinks it felt like. It’s crazy what’s happened in the interim, but it’s all good.”