On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” Zach Geballe and Tim McKirdy discuss the interesting challenge that new spirits face on the American market, with particular focus on Singani63, a Bolivian grape spirit being championed by Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh. Then, Tim chats with Soderbergh about the struggle to get the spirit into the domestic market. Tune in for more.
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Zach Geballe: In Portland, Oregon, I’m Zach Geballe.
Tim McKirdy: In VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Tim McKirdy.
Z: This is the Friday VinePair Podcast. Tim, I’m in a hotel room. It’s dark, a little echoey, but we’re here to bring you the scintillating content that we always provide on the VinePair Podcast. How’s your week been?
T: Yes, it’s been great, thank you, and, yes, just recording a little early today. What is it, change-up season now? Baseball started, Zach, you’re throwing change-ups my way? I don’t know. Yes, no, everything’s been great. Thank you.
Z: Fantastic. I’m really excited to get into this topic because I think there’s a lot to dig into here, and for those of you who don’t read episode descriptions and stuff like that very clearly before you click play, which, hey, good for you, we have a really fascinating interview that you did with Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh about a spirit that he’s gotten deeply involved in, and we’ll get into that, but I wanted to start this conversation, which is spawned by almost throwaway mention in that interview that you had, which is like a big spoiler for the interview. You asked him, when you look at this spirit Singani, which is a grape spirit from Bolivia, do you see one natural model for trying to get this spirit more in the public consciousness would be to look for a cocktail that calls for Singani in a very distinctive way? In the way that neighboring South American grape spirit, Pisco is obviously the spirit you use in a Pisco Sour. You just threw that in there and it didn’t become a big point of conversation, which is fine because now you and I can talk about it, and I was wondering, when you were talking to Steven and when you were thinking about this, what was your sense? He said, “We don’t really want to be pigeonholed as the spirit that goes in that one drink, and then otherwise, if you don’t like that drink or you don’t want that drink, you never touch it,” and you can speak candidly now. Do you think that’s right?
T: It’s a great question. Not because I posed it, of course, but it’s something that I’ve thought about a lot actually through the lens of Pisco because what will it take for Pisco to happen in a major way? We’ve seen a small trend of bars here returning to the Pisco Sour. Some never left it, but others I’ve seen devoted Pisco Sour menus. Now, do you want to be that spirit is a great question because to your point, if you don’t like the cocktail, basically if a drinker doesn’t like it, then they completely disregard it. Steven does know — again, this is a bit of a spoiler, but not a massive one, that they think this is almost like a one-bottle bar, that it can do everything. You can make Martinis with it, you can make sours, you can make Margarita alternatives. Look, if I had a brand, I would also market it as that, that it can do everything, but my sense is that at least to get the ball rolling, I think a signature serve does more good than bad.
Z: Yes, I’m inclined to agree for two reasons. One is just that reality of starting to occupy shelf space on a bar becomes really valuable, and I think about that in the context of Pisco or cachaça, another spirit that I think when I was bartending — the Caipirinha had its own trendy phase, and it became important that you had at least a bottle of cachaça on the bar, and what happens with bartenders of a certain ilk is they see the bottle and they go, “Okay, well, I know how to make this drink. I know how to make a Pisco Sour, but what else can Pisco do?” Maybe they try a couple of different things, whether it’s subbing Pisco for other spirits in an existing cocktail template, or they start playing around with it with other flavors or things like that, and it suddenly becomes exciting, perhaps somewhat unique to their bar cocktail, something that they can put forward. I think it’s that first point of entry of like, “Okay, we are going to be in most quality bars because the Pisco Sour or the Caipirinha or whatever is a drink that people might call and we want to be able to accommodate them even if we’re not putting it on our cocktail list directly.” Then once it’s in the bar, sometimes magic happens.
T: Yes, that’s a really good point. The signature serve, the cocktail that it’s associated with, gets it on the bar, and then the bartender starts to play around with it. Great point there. I think another part of this conversation too, I’m just mentally looking at some of the other categories. Yes, Caipirinha and cachaça are great examples. To a certain extent, you could say tequila and the margarita, there’s a couple of other ones, Paloma, but there really aren’t that many “classic” or well-known tequila cocktails. Gin, you have the Martini and also the Gin and Tonic. Then we arrive at Singani here and for those listening who have no context, it’s a fruit brandy, but specifically unaged, and I think that’s a very important part of this equation to because if you’re talking about something that’s aged, whether it’s whiskey or cognac, people are sipping that neat. Now, I think more people could sip on the aged spirits, but generally speaking, most people are going for cocktails. For that specifically, I think that adds an extra level of why this might need a signature cocktail or serve.
Z: Yes. I think there’s also this interesting point with something like Singani in particular, where I think even more so than Pisco, which is I think, as we’ve talked about, the closest natural analog, not so much in terms of exactly flavor profile or even application, but just place of origin, raw material, et cetera, we’ve already seen, I think, a interesting change in the American Pisco market, where you get out of the first or second brands on the market that you could buy and now you’re seeing — you’re talking about the places that are looking at putting together a Pisco Sour menu. One of the things that people are looking at is like, “Okay, let’s talk about a different-” Pisco’s from a couple of different South American countries, maybe some different parts of those countries, different grapes being used. There’s the potential for someone who gets really excited about it to look into the category and find some points of differentiation and maybe favorites. Right now, because Singani63, the spirit that Steven is importing, is the only thing in the American market, really this is again where maybe the signature serve becomes more appealing I think because, again, you’re the only one in town for the moment. Where I think I understand not wanting to be pigeonholed eventually and saying like, “Hey, we don’t want to just be the bottle you have on your bar because you want to serve this one cocktail,” I think you do need to have some, again, yes, this point of entry because otherwise, I think you just end up with a situation where it’s hard to go from — even if you get the bottle in the bar, it’s hard to get that from the bottle that’s bought by the beverage director, whomever, to the bartenders to guests without some natural selling point. It’s may be hard to convince people, yes, as you were saying, if there’s a clear unaged spirit that the recommended serve is on a single large rock, that’s just — some people might take that plunge, I probably would, but a lot of people are going to be like, “Uh, what else you got?”
Z: Or how else can you serve it to me even potentially?
T: I think also looking forward to the future, something that’s an interesting aspect of this brand is if Singani — if this does inspire other producers to import to the U.S. this new classification here, officially recognized as a type of spirit by the TTB as we’ll get into in the interview, I think it’s very — I don’t want to say calculated, but it’s very lucky or this brand will benefit from the fact that the name of the category is in the brand name, Singani63. Now if that were already an officially recognized category here, I don’t know whether the TTB would or wouldn’t allow that, a brand to launch with that in the name, perhaps not, but I think if this takes off and more people get interested in it, I think that will be beneficial for this brand.
Z: For sure. I think there are a lot of things about the branding and the positioning that they do seem like they’ll work for and I’m sitting here staring at the bottle. The label is eye-catching. The name is distinctive and captivating, and obviously, having a famous person involved with it has been a boon for many spirits over the last decade or two. Tim, the other important thing here is, have you tried this yet?
T: I have tried this, yes.
Z: You tried it, yes. You tried the whiskey.
T: I’m about a quarter way through my bottle here. Not today. We’re going to try it together, we’re going to take our first sip together today, but yes, I have had this. One thing I wanted to talk about and I guess we can talk about it when we’re tasting, Zach, but I don’t want to throw any shade over the way the fine folks in Cognac and whatnot and other great brandy-producing regions of the world, but this product is made using Muscat of Alexandria, which wine lovers will know, is a very, very aromatic, and expressive grape. We’ll get to tasting this, but it did make me question, why aren’t other regions using more expressive grapes rather than something like Ugni Blanc, which goes into Cognac. People say this is the reason we use it in brandy because it doesn’t really have enough character to merit being a wine instead. I think that’s interesting. I think that’s a very important part of this, and I also think that flavor profile, that aromatics will, when people approach it for the first time, help them go, “Oh, this is different, this is floral, this is fruity.” I want to hear your tasting, Zach, so should we pour a glass?
Z: All right. I think we should. Yes, I’m ready to go here. I have a decent-sized pour in the glass they give you by your sink in the hotel.
Z: Shouts to the Paramount Hotel here in Portland. I decided not to mess with hotel ice, so it’s just neat. Yes, I think just even in nosing the glass, that aromatic component is so distinctive, it is so much — it almost reminds me in its aromas, perhaps not surprisingly, of some of the grapas I’ve had that are made from particularly aromatic varieties, but here, you’re not dealing with the same kind of production methodology, I’m fairly confident. You’re not working with pumice or finished wine, you’re working with the remnants of winemaking. You’re working with wine itself as a distillate. Yes, it’s just really beautiful, and I think there is something about that. I think people sometimes look at unaged spirits, and think, “Oh, man, they’re going to be just harsh,” right? “They’re going to be hot. They’re going to be-” not necessarily boozy, but a lot of drinkers like the rounding off of the edges that oak aging provides to spirits. I think just that aroma, that perfume, and gentleness of it, maybe will give people a little more confidence to dive in. I haven’t actually tasted it yet, so I should probably do that too.
T: I’ll just add here too, this reminds me, it’s a sibling of Muscat, Torrontés. The nose really reminds me of that. I do think too, that when you taste it, and when you smell this spirit, I actually don’t know how well this would fare if it spent some time in oak. I think the oak character might clash with the profile here, but I’m finding this, I don’t want to use the word “refreshing”, but you know what I mean, it brightens everything up. Just those aromas, and love the palette too.
Z: Yes. You can see why from just absolute quality standpoint, or whatever, that the instinct would be to say, “We don’t want to pigeonhole the spirit in one direction.” Even in tasting it now, you can see a lot of different potentialities, either just enjoying it as is, or in cocktails. I almost think something like the equivalent of Pisco Sour would be — I’m sure it would taste good, but I think under some of the ingredients in that cocktail, you might lose, again, the aromatics. I’m not sure exactly. I don’t know, have you made any cocktails with this?
T: Yes, I was going to ask you that. That’s the topic of today. I’m curious. Can we workshop some cocktails with this? I actually haven’t used it for cocktails yet, which speaks to the quality of it as a sipping spirit. I think I might go — maybe it’s just because you mentioned this earlier, but I might go in the direction of a Caipirinha with this. It’s a drink that I love, but I think with some acidity there from the lime, and just a little bit of sweetness, I think that could be a wonderful serve for this.
Z: Yes. I could certainly see that working. I’m unclear in my own sense to what extent I want to add a lot of citrus to this. I feel like a little bit maybe could be nice. A Caipirinha in that sense can be a good choice because I think you get not so much less citrus, but especially if you’re making it with a whole or at least a half of a lime, you’re getting a little of that pithy bitterness too, that can keep it from going just straight tart lime. The first thing that occurred to me, I think even though it’s funny because it’s a little bit contradictory of what I said about the Pisco Sour, but because of the floral notes in this, one of the first drinks that occurred to me was in something like a Ramos Gin Fizz.
Z: Obviously, not exactly a simple cocktail-
T: Yes, that’s not really going to help sell a lot.
Z: It might help, the guests might enjoy it. I’m not sure if the staff will, but I feel like I’d want to try this almost like in a Collins perhaps. Again, something where you’re bringing a few other ingredients to bear on it, but you’re not getting too much in the way, or even just maybe like some other kind of highball. Something where you’re mellowing out the booziness a touch, but you’re not — which to be fair, it’s a 40 percent ABV spirit. It’s very normal. You don’t want to drink it neat, but you want to kind of keep as much of the flavor intact as possible. In the interview, I think Steven alludes to it as a gin replacement and Negroni, and I’m sure that tastes good. I’m not sure it’s the direction I would take it because I think part of what makes gin such a good combo with sweet vermouth and Campari in that cocktail is that the potent juniper notes really stand up to those other flavors. To me, this needs a little bit more of a — less of vigorous, intense cocktail playmates. It needs to be able to have a little bit more of a spotlight on it to really show its character. I think the viscosity of the spirit is also really interesting and something I’m going to continue to think about. I mean, I’m a little surprised you haven’t actually tried it as a martini, but I think that actually could be an interesting serve as well. I think you’d have to pick your vermouth carefully, but I think it could work quite nicely.
T: Yes. Again, this isn’t going to really shift a ton of product for them, but something I like to do, maybe it’s my second Martini of the night or whatever, I’ll have a classic first, but I do very much enjoy adding, swapping out a quarter ounce of however much gin I’m using and adding in a quarter-ounce of eau de vie. I think it would be brilliant with this. I think that would just add it — maintain the soul of the drink, but just take it in a slightly different direction, I think that would be wonderful. As a straight-up Martini. I don’t know. I’d have to try it. I would love to try it, but I’m not sure whether, again, that you would taste that and be like, “Oh, that’s a really interesting martini.” You’d be like, “That’s a pretty delicious or distinctive stirred drink.”
Z: Yes. The last one that occurs to me, and I’m curious since you just did an episode on it for “Cocktail College,” is maybe in a White Negroni as a possibility more than in a classic formulation.
T: I think that would be stunning. I think those ingredients, even though Suze can be dominating, I think it would work. I think it would really play well in that. I think that might be the first cocktail I will make with this, a White Negroni.
Z: Yes. Cool. I think that’s a great place for you and I hate to leave it. Got, like you said, a fascinating interview that you did with Steven Soderbergh about his introduction to Singani, his long struggle to get it recognized as a category by the TTB, and lots more. Tim, I will leave past you to that and I will talk to future you on Monday.
Tim McKirdy: Sounds good. From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Tim McKirdy and this is a special edition of the VinePair Podcast because today we’re joined in the studio by Steven Soderbergh. Steven, welcome, and thank you for joining us.
Steven Soderbergh: Oh, thanks for having me.
T: We do like to occasionally delve into the topic of movies and TV here at VinePair, but that’s not what we’re about, specifically as a publication and a podcast, and it’s not what we’re going to be talking about with you today. Instead, it’s a topic, a category, style, and a brand that’s dear to your heart. Singani. Can you tell us all about it or give us a brief intro to Singani to start with, please?
S: Like a lot of people prior to being exposed to it in June of 2007, I’d never heard of Singani, was not aware that there was a national drink of Bolivia, and we were in Madrid about to start filming on the “Che” project and we were having a startup party in Madrid because can’t make a movie about a Marxist revolutionary without having a startup party.
S: At the party, my Bolivian casting director, Rodrigo Bellott, came up to me and said, “Oh, I wanted to get you a start gift and so I brought you a bottle of Singani,” and he gave me the two-sentence history of it. I said, “How do you drink it?” He said, “I just drink it on the rocks.” I said, “Great.” We cracked it open. He poured me a glass, and I had one of those instantaneous reactions that you have occasionally in your life, sometimes to a person, sometimes to a piece of art. In this case, it was a complete sensory explosion or at least an experience with a spirit that I’d never had before. I was a vodka drinker, primarily. Three things happened when I first took this sip, the first was before it even got to my mouth, the bouquet of the spirit was quite striking, very floral. I wasn’t used to having any sort of bouquet because I was drinking vodka most of the time. Then I took a sip, and it’s very active on the palate. A lot of notes come out. If you talk to a dozen different people, they’ll pull out a dozen different notes. It has a very interesting quality that shifts as you work with it. Then as a straight vodka drinker, I’d gotten used to what I call the second swallow, which is the price you pay when you’re drinking a hard spirit if you want to get into the end zone. This had none of that. This just completely vanished, disappeared. No second swallow, just super, super smooth. Immediately I started asking him more questions about this spirit, and he gave me what background he had. He had a family relationship with Casa Real, who was the distiller of the bottle he gave me. He explained this was a fourth-generation family-owned business. They had been the first company a hundred years ago to industrialize the process of making Singani. Prior to that, it was all done ad hoc and people would sell it at the market. They really built it into a business. One of the ways in which Casa Real distinguishes itself from the other distillers in Bolivia, of which there are many, is they use copper pot Cognac stills that were made in France. They distill their Singani twice. Everybody else is using steel column stills-
T: Continuous stills.
S: -and distilling once. The Casa Real Singani, as it turns out, has a much rounder profile, which has a couple of benefits, some of which I didn’t realize until later. The initial benefit was that smoothness that I talked about much later when we were coming to market, what we discovered when bringing it around to high-profile mixologists, just to get their take on what this thing was. They all said, “This is really insanely versatile. I’ve been pushing it this way. I’ve been pushing it that way. I’ve made this with it. I’ve made that with it. This is an aspect that I think you should really be trying to sell when you go out into the market.” We did that, but it’s a complex story to sell to a consumer. What I discovered when I started getting into this business after we — six months of shooting “Che” where I’d been drinking this every night and I reached out to Casa Real and we made a deal. I applied to the U.S. government to become the importer, which was approved. Then you have to send them a sample of it, so they can analyze it and tell you what they think it is, which in this case, which we’ll talk about later, they qualified it as — they called it a brandy.
T: A brandy. Right. Probably useful for us to add here as well, this is a grape-based distillate, typically unaged.
S: Yes. Singani is unaged. Has to be a single varietal, which is the Muscat of Alexandria grape.
T: Which is a very expressive grape, right?
T: Which probably leads to those aromas and everything that you were getting there.
S: That combined with the fact that it has to be grown and distilled at or above 6,000 feet, and in this 120,000-acre area of the southern Andes in Bolivia. The criteria for making Singani and being able to call it Singani is extremely narrow. When you talk about a terroir-driven spirit, this is hyper-terroir-driven, this is not a great place to grow anything as it turns out.
S: That struggle that the grape has to go through, these extreme diurnal temperature shifts, land that — because apparently 10,000 years ago, it was underwater, and when the water left, it took a lot of the minerals with it.
S: It’s just very unforgiving. As a result, the grapes grow these very thick skins and I think that’s also a place where the aromatics start to come out. Because of the altitude, you have a lower boiling point, which I think also helps with the softness and burning off some of the harsher elements typically. All of these things are aligning to create a really incredible expression of this one grape that traveled from Egypt to Spain all the way down to southern Bolivia 500 years ago. It’s a crazy random story.
T: I believe that, actually, unless I’m mistaken here, I think it was one of the first grapes to arrive in South America or one of the first varieties, at least. I know it’s also prevalent further south where that story or some of that story was set in Argentina and Chile as well. For folks that are probably familiar also with other great-based distillates, brandies, you look at Cognac, which is probably the most well-known one in the world, they’re using Ugni Blanc, which is a grape variety that if you’re to drink wine made from it, really doesn’t have a lot of character whereas Muscat of Alexandria, yes, again, we’re talking about one of the most expressive grapes out there.
S: The wine that they make before they turn it into Singani is spectacular, really, really good wine.
T: You’re like, “Do we have to distill this-”
S: Yes, I know. As it turns out, Casa Real is also in the wine business. For our purposes, as I was learning all of this background and figuring out step by step how this works, I had no understanding of the liquor business, the booze industry, didn’t know anybody who was in it, so at each chapter I would go, “What do we do now?” We get this categorization of brandy which I understood to be technically true, since the TTB views anything distilled from a fruit as technically a brandy for them, but I found it confusing. I was confused by it as a lay person and I had a feeling that consumers would be confused by it as well, particularly young people I think are not big brandy drinkers. We made a little short film as part of our petition to the TTB to get this category in which we interviewed 15 or 20 people around the U.S. They applied to be interviewed. We sent them a bottle without a label on it. We would ask them these questions and then we would ask them to taste the Singani and tell us what they thought. To a person when we asked them, “When you hear the word brandy, what do you think?” they all said brown liquid, snifter, white guy, library, cigar, all that.
S: We built a sentence that flowed perfectly of eight different people saying the same thing. All of them. These are people 35 to 25. All of them said, “Not a big brandy drinker. None of my friends that I know really drink a lot of brandy.” Then we asked them, “Open that bottle and taste it. Tell us what you think.” They did that and then all these different notes came out. Somebody said, “Oh, I’m picking up a peppery thing.” Somebody said, “Oh, it’s like a gin.” Somebody else said, “No, it’s like a tequila.” Somebody said, “No, it’s like a rum.” You had all these different — Then finally we said, “That’s a brandy.” All of them went, “That would’ve been last on my list of things to describe to pair with this.” We made this presentation in November 2014. We come to the market in January. I’m sitting across a table from 17 people representing four different agencies that have to sign off on this. We’ve done our spectral analysis. We’ve shown that on a molecular level Singani doesn’t really bear much relation to anything that’s been aged. You change the structure of something when you put it into wood and age it, and people that make brandy consider something like Singani to be unfinished. We did all that and weren’t getting a lot of traction. A couple of years go by, we keep reapplying, they keep kicking it back and we keep reapplying, and finally, I did that thing where I reached out to a political consultant friend and said, “I need a lobbyist. I’ve hit a wall here. Nobody will engage with us anymore.” I hired this lobbyist, and after a couple of years, they finally got us a meeting with the person. This is 2017, 2018, deputy secretary of the treasury under Steve Mnuchin is a guy named Justin Muzinich. We roll in. We got half an hour. We make our little 10-minute presentation. He asks a series of very pointed intelligent questions about the history of the spirit or experience with the TTB and treasury up to that point. Then says, “Well, I don’t see any reason why this shouldn’t move forward. I’m sorry, this has been taking so long. I’m going to do what I can to push this ball downfield.” Then things started to move. Now, four years later it finally happens, but that was the moment where finally it started to feel like it was going to happen. Now, we had borrowed the roadmap that Steve Lutman had created for Leblon cachaça – got their category designation. He basically said, “Look, you’ve got to come up with — there’s got to be a transaction here.” You go into the room and they tell you it’s all about the merit of the spirit and you proving that-
T: That’s not the case.
S: Yes, you got to — what we did was we got Peru and Chile to recognize Tennessee whiskey or bourbon as specific products of the United States, which actually helps — they have a big counterfeiting problem all throughout that country. This does enable companies now like Jack Daniel’s to go after people. It is a legitimate-
T: It serves everyone really. Apart from the producers of whiskeys or spirits that are claiming to be bourbon or Tennessee whiskey, but they are not. Those are the only people that would lose out in this equation.
S: Exactly. We went that route. We were able to get the government agencies to talk to each other, sign an agreement, and that was the penultimate step before the category was announced, but again, you’re dealing with the government. You have your guy called back channel, “Hey, what’s going on?” “Looks good. Looks good. When do you think?” “I don’t know, maybe April.” April goes by. “What do you think?” “I don’t know. September.” September goes by. Jan. 13, 8 a.m. this year, my phone starts blowing up from all my Singani team and I call them and I go, “What’s up?” They go, “They just posted it.”
S: No call, no heads up, nothing. It’s up. It happened.
S: That was something. I really was sitting in that room in November 2014 and having a real understanding of how difficult this was going to be, how rare it is that they give these things out. They don’t want to. Their default is to say no because it’s a hassle. I really took a deep breath, but I felt like, honestly, apart from the political aspect of it, we meet the metric for this easily, compared to other spirits like Pisco who’ve gotten designations like this. There you’ve got seven or eight different varietals that can be made in two different countries and the terrain doesn’t matter.
T: Nowhere near as specific.
S: No, it’s tighter than Champagne, actually. I really felt like on merit we had a good case, but it was a big rock pushing up a big hill.
T: I’ve got a couple of follow-up questions there for you because I think you did a very good job of highlighting why you don’t want this to be categorized as brandy because then it starts to get put maybe in the brandy sections of liquor stores or on wine.com or whatever and people look at that and they go, “That ain’t brandy. That’s got no color.” I can understand why you wouldn’t want to do that, but then knowing how much of an uphill struggle it was or the task that was ahead of you, maybe you had a slight idea of it, you were doing that to promote or have this recognized category of Singani, which I would imagine is not familiar either to consumers. From a business point of view, it seems like that might not be what you would want to do in terms of getting consumer attention. Was the drive more like, “We rightfully deserve this and we’re going to go after it,” or was it to also set it apart and then say then the next job begins on educating people on Singani, and what it is?
S: For me, it was mostly — it just didn’t feel correct. The mandate of the TTB is to inform the consumer about what they’re drinking. I felt this was confusing. I felt given the proportion of brandies that are out there that are aged and are the opposite of Singani that it just — it was really not doing anybody any favors by not making this distinction. I just had to believe that if you — you have to will these things into existence. I thought about the fact that as a filmmaker, I grew up in a suburban subdivision in Baton Rouge, La. I didn’t know anybody in the entertainment industry. I just wanted to make movies and just decided it’s going to be somebody. Somebody’s going to pop. Why not me? I just tasked myself with teaching myself the mechanics of film and watching films, making films. I just felt like, “Forget about the odds. This is not about the odds.” I really had to look at the TTB the same way and just go, “Well, other people have done it. I feel like we have a great case, so we’re just going to stick to it.” It took Steve Lutman 10 years, so I had a baseline to deal with. That kept me calm, but the educational part of it has always been tricky in the sense that we start off with something nobody’s ever heard of. I’m talking, one of the first people that we brought it to in New York was Jim Meehan, PDT, and Jim Meehan’s never heard of it. My team members and I are like, “Okay, that’s interesting.” Jim was one of the people that said, “I’m really having fun pushing this thing around.” We decided this is going to be our first avenue, which is top-shelf, hardcore, mixologist people like Jim, Julie Reiner, Ivy Mix, Alex Day, Devon Tarby, we’re going after the top, top people to, A) get their opinion about it. B) If they’re inclined, to be a friend of the court, which they have been. That step took us to a certain point. Then when you want to get past that to a consumer, it gets much more difficult. Nobody has the time to hear the history of this brand. No server has the time to tell them this story. They look at the name, they’re not sure — how do I pronounce it? They don’t want to get it wrong. That’s a real uphill battle. We accepted it because I said to everybody the only thing worse than us having to describe to people something they’ve never heard of or never tasted before, is rolling up here with another vodka or another tequila trying to explain why it’s different. At least, we are different. We’re completely different. What the TTB categorization does for us is it fills in the last piece of that educational piece by explaining to people why you’ve never heard of this because it’s a new category. It’s not a new spirit. The reason you never heard of it is the government hadn’t really identified it as being unique before. Now it has. In this context, you can trust your government. It just helps. It helps when you say to people — when they say to you, “What is it like,” that’s what everybody wants to know before they’ve tasted or if they’re just talking about it. If you say, “Well, it’s not really like anything,” that just sounds like a pitch. Now we can say, “It’s not really like anything,” and because of that, we have this categorization. It helped. Already it’s helped a lot. Plus, I don’t want to tell people their business, but I feel like any self-respecting bar at this point, now that it’s a category, you got to have a bottle, you got to have one, it’s a new thing. When the posting went up Jan. 13, it said, “Effective Feb. 12.” I was like, what does that mean? Are you going to check that people are carrying it, or that they have it in a special section now at the spirit store? What is the enforcement here? I have no idea. It has already helped a lot in the people that are in a position of having to tell our story for us, now have a weapon that people can understand.
T: Yes. You mentioned bartenders a lot there, and I think when it comes to growing a category, a new category, a new style or an unfamiliar style, those bartenders really are your ambassadors. If you get one bartender on board, then they in turn can tell 50 drinkers. The conversion rate there in terms of marketing to try and get individual drinkers, that’s fantastic. I’m wondering, does the next step of this education process involve perhaps hoping we can devise a kind of signature serve? I think about the Pisco that you mentioned before, similar in some ways, very different in other ways, I’ve often wondered myself, does Pisco benefit or lose out from the fact that it has the Pisco Sour because that’s a drink that’s pretty widely known, but I would imagine you have a lot of people saying, “Oh, now I don’t fancy a Pisco Sour, so I’m going to drink a different spirit,” rather than, “What else can I use Pisco for?” In terms of Singani, what’s your thinking there, and again, this next step of education?
S: Well, again, that’s the tricky part. How do you explain to people that this is the one-bottle bar literally? We created this booklet that’s on our website that I shot all the pictures for. This is how granular it gets, where we did 24 classic cocktails in which you use Singani as either a base or a modifier. The range is pretty crazy. You’re going from — I’m looking at it here, a Vesper to a Negroni, to a Manhattan, to an Old Fashioned, a Sazerac, the Vieux Carré, Bensonhurst, a Margarita, Mojito, Sangria. It makes a fantastic Sangria Daiquiri, obviously. The sour obviously is very good. We had a really fun demonstration that one high-level mixologist did for his Pisco rep once. It was a weird trick to play, but he was trying to show us how excited he was about the spirit. He had his Pisco rep come in and say, “I’ve made you two sours and I want you to taste both of them, and then I want you to pick which one you like more.” They picked the Singani Sour and they were not happy to hear that, but he had brought us to see this, to show you’ve got something. This is early, early days, first few weeks of us being available. Again, how do you explain to somebody this is a one-bottle bar, and essentially when people go, “What is your goal here?” My goal is for Singani to be viewed as the eighth base spirit. I have Alex Day on camera saying, “This is a new base spirit.” This doesn’t happen very often. Again, for a consumer, that’s a tricky sell. In the meantime, what we’ve now started doing is we have some campaigns built that were going into very specific markets and rolling up into a neighborhood as though we’re a big brand, bus shelters, taxis, all this stuff just to see — I don’t know what the language situation-
T: Anything flies.
S: The campaign is called, “What the f*ck?” The campaign is “What the f*ck is Singani63” which is the thing that people say most often when you roll up with it. The whole campaign’s built on that idea that, yes, we know you don’t know what it is, but we have this cheeky way of bringing you into the fold and answering that question. We did one test market so far, and it worked really well. It was in San Diego in the Gaslamp district there. Like I said, we rolled in with a heavy campaign for a couple of weeks. We’re continuing to test that while we start to build out our footprint. I think we’re in 29 states.
S: You can get us online shipped anywhere. Simon Ford said to me once when he was giving some very good advice, “Don’t confuse expansion with growth.” We’ve tried to be really careful about that because you don’t get a second shot at a market. If you go in and fail, you’re done, so we’ve tried to be really careful about that. We’re in the U.K. right now, we’ve been there for a while. In the last nine months, that started to move upward. I’m not sure why, we got to figure that out. We’ve had offers from a lot of countries outside the U.S. and we’ve just said no because we can’t open up this many fronts. It’s just me at this point, still subsidizing this. What we’re hoping to do is over the next two to three years, now that we have the category, building ourselves up to a point where we are on the radar now of a larger company not to be bought, but I want infrastructure.
S: Yes. I just want a system I can hook into. I still want to run this thing, but I need resources and I need a distribution network so that I’m not doing this à la carte everywhere we go, including every state. As you know, the stuff that I learned the hard way when this all began, the incredible range of rules from state to state about this stuff, whether you have control states or you have a state like Washington State where the taxation on spirits is unbelievably high. Texas has got this very weird four-tier system where the bar can’t order directly from the person that’s selling the spirit. They have to go through all these different steps, so it takes you months to find out who’s ordering or if they’re ordering. Every state’s got these wild rules that they do not want to change, that have been there since the end of prohibition, literally, so getting into that was like, “You’re kidding.” If the movie distribution business ran like this, they’d be really screwed. This is so slipshod and inconsistent.
T: It’s so interesting there, just as a quick side note though, like you said, you can order this online and have it delivered, but what I’m sure a lot of listeners don’t realize is that every single one of those orders is going through all of those three tiers of distribution behind the scenes. Basically, jumping over legal hurdles that are a throwback to over a hundred years ago.
T: It’s very wild.
S: I think as we’ve all seen, there’s been somewhat of a reset or a rethink about these things in the aftermath of Covid. I would love to see some more consistency. I just don’t know how you’ll do it, because, especially for a small brand, you just don’t have the resources to fight this stuff state by state, you just don’t, and the people aligned on the other side have a lot of money. The Catch-22 of being in a control state where they won’t take you and put you on the shelf unless people are ordering it, but if they can’t get it, how are they ordering it? It’s crazy.
T: The crazy thing is I’ve heard from bartenders as well on the other side where they’re trying to prove to the control state that they will show enough demand for it, so it’s crazy. We could probably go on about this for a long time, but let’s bring it back to Singani for a second. Listening to you talk about many of the efforts you’ve made here, it sounds like you’ve done a very good job of gaining trust with those who have been introduced to yourselves. You talked about it there, if you tell people, “This isn’t like anything you’ve had before,” their obvious thing is going to be like, “Yes, that’s a sales pitch,” and then turning around and being like, “And because of that, we’ve done this.” The other thing that I think is very smart too is that oftentimes I will encounter producers or new categories and people are like, “You can use it for all this, but actually, I just like drinking it neat.” Most people don’t drink their spirits neat, especially unaged spirits. Calling it the one-bottle bar I think is a phenomenal idea, testing it out in all of those cocktails, even better, and having those recipes online, but it also strikes me as a category that’s like, has a lot to appeal to spirits geeks. You mentioned terroir, small production, so I wonder if you wanted to share any more of those too because I think we look at categories like mezcal where there’s a huge interest right now, people like the idea of smaller producers, less industrial, all of that kind of thing. Any other — we can get into the geeky nitty gritty here because that’s who our listeners are and that’s what they want to hear about.
S: It was just my good fortune that the bottle Rodrigo gave me was from Casa Real because their methods are unique in and of themselves. In addition to the distillation that I talked about, when they started this process and decided, “We really want to make this a proper business,” they consulted with agronomists in the Middle East and in Africa to figure out how to grow these grapes on the sides of these mountains essentially, and how to irrigate them. How do we make this work? They came in and reshaped the terrain in order to be able to irrigate properly. The other thing that they’ve been smart about is, they’ve created a really fantastic — they have their estate grapes, which Singani63, the label that they created for me, is all estate grapes, and is basically a turbo version of their black label Singani that they sell in Bolivia, the black label and a white label. All the rest of their Singani are a combination of the estate grapes and these co-ops that they’ve been working with for decades. It’s a great company. It runs really well. These are good jobs — people want to work there. The immediate impact if Singani were to become a thing, would be palpable on that community, their ability to bring more people on. I talked to them, one of the first conversations we had, I said, “Look, I’m planning for success here. What if this blows up? What is your ability to ramp up production if we need to ramp up production?” They sell on average about 4 million bottles of Singani in Bolivia a year. 10 years ago when we had this conversation, they said, “We have a plan for that.” A year ago, they just opened the expanded version of their distillery. It’s not twice as big as it used to be. I think in the hopes that geeks will want to come and really get eyes on how this is produced. The new part of the distillery is designed for that, it has a restaurant and a bar
T: Visitor experiences.
S: Yes, because it’s impressive what they’re doing there by any standard. All of this means potentially more flights, more tourism. Bolivia’s a fascinating country as it turned out. Not just because Che was killed there. One of the reasons “Che” ended up being killed there is, and I didn’t remember this when I was starting the process, Bolivia’s landlocked. When I started this process of trying to get all this stuff on a boat to get to the United States, somebody reminded me, well, it’s going to have to go through Chile and then get on a boat, which is a whole other level of-
T: Oh, my God.
S: -complication, and during the pandemic, and everybody was having this problem, you saw it on the news. You’d put stuff on a boat and you just didn’t know when it was going to show up. Months and months later. Something that would typically take two months was taking nine.
T: No way.
S: We were lucky, we had enough supply to keep us going, but I know brands that-
T: Didn’t have the stock.
S: -couldn’t deliver. They were out of stock. That’s not a place you want to be.
T: Steven, I’ve got a final question here for you today because I think you did a great job of explaining this is the one-bottle bar. I’ve got my eye on the Martini there on the website and I’m definitely going to try that.
S: It’s good.
T: Curious to hear for the listeners today, if there’s one serve, one cocktail, maybe it doesn’t need to be of all time, but recently that you’ve been enjoying Singani63, and what would it be?
S: My go-to obviously based on my first experience with it is, ideally just Singani in a big rock, but I’ve been told by friends and acquaintances that the Singani version of a Negroni is a real — very, very approachable, partially because the Singani, but partially because we switch out the Campari for Aperol. It’s just got a rounder feel to it.
T: Steven, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m going to go out there, get myself a bottle right now, and make a Martini.
S: Oh, well, enjoy, and thanks for having me.
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