Sometimes, it takes a little outside-the-bar thinking to bring an under-the-radar spirit to life. For filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, that spirit happened to be Bolivia’s beloved singani. What started with a sip has now become a mission to enlighten Americans about this undiscovered nectar of the Andes.
Soderbergh, a self-described former vodka drinker, was in Bolivia filming Che when he first came across the spirit, whose origins trace back to the 1500s. After ingratiating himself with the local community and getting a better understanding of the product’s distillation process, Soderbergh decided that a movie starring Benicio Del Toro wasn’t the only thing he wanted to bring back through customs.
“I just keep going back to the fact that I really liked it,” Soderbergh tells the Voice. “All these people around me that I think have literally good taste really liked it.” After purchasing the international distribution rights and renaming the product Singani 63 (to honor his birth year), Soderbergh began the arduous process of getting his product in the hands of a new type of critic: New York bartenders.
Although the spirit has a long history in Bolivia, its global presence outside of its home nation was pretty much nonexistent. So Soderbergh followed his instincts and and did what any good brand ambassador would do: He got the movers and shakers of the cocktail world to taste the product. One such person? Bodega Negra’s (355 West 16th Street, 212-229-2336) beverage director Drew Sweeney, who recognized that Singani 63 was completely different from other familiar South American spirits.
“It really does have a very unique flavor profile and bouquet. It speaks for a place a little more than the things that I’ve tried,” Sweeney says. “I wouldn’t really compare it to a brandy or a pisco.”
The spirit is distilled from grapes, and that flavor is one of the drink’s main characteristics. Deciding to let the unique spirit’s taste shine (instead of masking it with heavy juices), Sweeney turned to a classic sour recipe that would allow the singani to make an impact. Sweeney also muddled grapes to reinforce the notes created through the distillation process.
“For vodka drinkers, it’s an easy transition. It’s a clear spirit; it’s not overwhelming” notes Sweeney. “With this singani, it’s still subtle, a lot more complex.”
As for the challenges of Soderbergh’s newfound career, the highs and lows of the spirits industry have only made him more enthusiastic about his product’s potential: “Nobody solved anything ever in the history of this planet by panicking, so just keep going.”
For those of us who just want to quench our thirst, the recipe for Sweeney’s Singani Sour is right here.
Singani Sour by Drew Sweeney of Bodega Negra
2 oz. Singani 63
.75 oz. fresh lemon juice
A handful of grapes
.75 oz. simple syrup
1 egg white
2 dashes of angostura bitters
Muddle grapes in a glass. Add all ingredients, including grapes, into a shaker sans ice and shake vigorously. Add ice, shake again. Strain mix into a glass. Top with bitters and grapes for garnish.