SB Voices: A world of discovery
After an encounter with Steven Soderbergh’s Singani 63 brand, Amy Hopkins wonders what other ‘undiscovered’ spirits are out there.
How many of you have heard of Singani? I knew nothing about the spirit until news emerged in 2015 that American director Steven Soderbergh, of Ocean’s Eleven and Sex, Lies, and Videotape fame, had launched his own iteration of the Bolivian spirit in 2015. The brand, titled Singani 63 after the filmmaker’s birth year, is produced at the Casa Real distillery and recently made its debut in the UK.
I attended the launch event earlier this summer and after tasting the spirit – whose character is most similar to pisco – my interest was truly piqued. It’s soft, dry, bitter, savoury and a little sweet all at once. Its complexity and story have already grabbed the attention of top bartenders Ivy Mix of Leyenda and Alex Day of Death & Co, who champion Singani 63 in their cocktail lists.
During the event I was told that Soderbergh fell in love with Singani while filming Che in Bolivia, after hearing about the history and unique, artisanal production of the spirit. According to Jonathan Brathwaite, chief operating officer at Singani 63: “The quality to be Singani is more finite than any other spirit category in the world.”
Under its appellation of origin, Singani must be distilled from Muscat of Alexandria grapes, and these grapes must be grown and distilled in particular areas of the Bolivian Andes at certain altitudes. Popular in its native Bolivia, Singani is yet to make its mark on the international drinks landscape, but Soderbergh’s Singani 63 is hoping to change that, and bring the category to curious international audiences.
To build a ‘national’ spirit category outside of its domestic market is no easy feat and requires not only the right contacts in the right places and an ambassadorial team of industry influencers, but the success of an international educational mission. For Singani 63 to enter the cocktail canon, the brand must first ensure bartenders and consumers understand what exactly Singani is – after all, its specificity is what makes it so interesting.
Other categories have set the same task, with some more successful than others. Pisco (whether from Chile or Peru) has been aided by the popularity of its namesake Sour, while cachaça has spent years trying to expand beyond its native Brazil – but even after hype around the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, the category hasn’t managed to become ‘the next big thing’. Aguardiente has barely stepped outside of Colombia’s borders.
Over the other side of the world, there’s a host of insulated categories still largely undiscovered by international bartenders and spirits fans. Soju and shōchū shift enormous volumes in their domestic Asian markets, but are relatively unknown by wider audiences. Similarly, the international reach of Chinese spirit baijiu is mostly limited to expat buyers.
However, important steps are being taken. Earlier this year, baijiu maker Kweichow Moutai Company signed an agreement with the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) to build a “strategic” partnership between the UK and China. Moutai, the world’s leading baijiu brand, is aiming for 10% of its total sales to come from international markets by 2020. Meanwhile, spirits giant Diageo has thrown its weight behind baijiu and is seeking to increase its stake in Shui Jing Fang.
Bacardi acquired super-premium Leblon cachaça in 2015, and one year later Brazil and Mexico signed an agreement to “recognise and protect” Tequila and cachaça. Now the team behind Singani 63 has hired the same lobbyists as Leblon to petition the US government to officially recognise the appellation of Singani.
While undoubtedly difficult, the potential for these national spirits to enter the international realm is there, particularly as drinks trends become more global and consumers more curious and educated than ever before. Whether their ambitions will be hindered by at tit-for-tat trade fracas is another question all together.