The Soderbergh adventure

Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh tells Hamish Smith why his niche passion could have global box-office appeal.


CONTRARY TO APPEARANCE, THE PHOTO TO YOUR RIGHT IS NOT THE POSTER FROM A SPOOF HOLLYWOOD PRODUCTION OF THE LIFE OF VLADIMIR PUTIN. It is, in fact, a marketing shot for a spirit brand launched by Steven Soderbergh. The Hollywood film director  - who provided the head (Putin the nipples and horse) - is currently better known for Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven, than Bolivian eau de vie – but he would quite like this to change. 

“I have had crazier ideas before,” Soderbergh says down the phone, just over a year after launching the brand in New York, the city in which he lives. “My family are bemused by it. They see it is as me being on a frolic on my own. But it’s not any crazier than deciding to make films for a living.” 

While other US luminaries have plumped for the easy sell of vodka or tequila, Soderbergh has gone exotic. He is marketing a spirit few knew existed – the trade included. To that we must say touché. But the fact remains there can’t be many more difficult sells in the spirits world than unaged Bolivian brandy. 

His quest is grand. It is to pluck the brandy Singani out of the thin-aired obscurity of the Bolivian Andes and take it to the wider world. At the risk of sounding like a Hollywood voiceover: against the odds, Steven Soderbergh wants to build a new spirits category.

Which begs the question, why? The answer is it’s a classic love story. “When the five-month Che shoot in Bolivia ended I was convinced that this was a unique spirit,” says Soderbergh emphatically. “The Che crew got hooked on it. I thought it would be a great idea to take it to America.”

The movie Che arrived in 2008 but you would have to fast-forward through many Soderbergh films and TV series before Singani made its first appearance outside of Bolivia. 

The deal struck with producer Casa Real means Soderbergh owns the brand spin-off Singani 63 (named after the year he was born) while the Muscat of Alexandria distillate continues to be produced under licence. The first shipment didn’t land in the US until 2012 and it was a good year later, in January 2014, that the first bottle was sold. Reassuringly, perhaps, entering the US market is difficult for everyone, A-list stars included.  

“When we started in New York a year ago we targeted the top mixologists,” says Soderbergh. “We have 45-50 on-premise accounts in Manhattan. Jim Meehan [owner of PDT] took to it immediately. He liked it because he hadn’t heard of it and because of its versatility. He said you can make some really subtle cocktails with it. I’m taking that as good news.”

Soderbergh prefers his Singani 63 over rocks. Previously a vodka drinker, he now drinks nothing else. It would be marketing suicide to say anything else but Soderbergh clearly loves the stuff. 

But love doesn’t sell cases of spirits. Soderbergh knows transferring his passion to the trade – and latterly consumers – won’t be easy. “The spirits business is competitive. If you want to get it into a bar you have to talk to someone who has seen three or four people like you that week. It’s sobering. 

“I have looked at other people in the [spirits] industry and seen what they have done to make themselves successful and educated myself. I have found that obstacles in this business are more significant than in the movie business. 

“The only thing I can apply from one business to the other is a willingness to think outside the box to solve a problem. I am a process-driven person rather than a results-driven person. The spirits business is a results-driven business. It’s so competitive. [In movies] you become a talent magnet - it’s not just the box office. But in spirits you just have to move the product. But can we do it atypically? Can we zig when others zag? We will see if we can transfer that success from New York.”

Celebrity ownership

One of the pitfalls of celebrity ownership is lending only the name, not the time. “Some people have their name attached to a spirit without being involved. You have to be involved with the spirit. Dan Aykroyd [who is behind Crystal Head Vodka] told me you need to be involved. I produce the content and write the copy. Singani 63 is being sold off my back so it must feel like it comes from me. I am asking people to transfer my credibility from my other work to Singani 63.”

For a man used to working on multi-million dollar screenplays, this is the original small-budget project. Despite his personal wealth, Soderbergh cannot compete with the might of drinks groups – as he puts it he “cannot pay to play”. But perhaps that’s not necessary. 

“There are two things you need to succeed and that’s luck and timing. If I had launched Singani 63 when I first discovered it in 2007-2008 we wouldn’t have been successful [as the time wasn’t right]. People in the business said we have had a piece of good luck. It’s a spirit that is not known outside of Bolivia. It has a long history – it’s one of the oldest sprits that exists, it tastes good and is flexible to mix.”

Despite the size of the challenge and the fact the business is “not even close” to making money, Soderbergh is optimistic. “The good news is that people are not launching brandies every week so it doesn’t have competitors with a billion dollars behind them. But we feel the label of ‘brandy’ is misleading – we have been lobbying. Singani could be its own category. It has the tightest criteria of any spirit in the world. It must be produced from above 5,000ft in a [particular] area of Bolivia.” 

“We have sold about 500 cases but we just placed an order of 1,200 - you never want to be out of product. Boutique spirit projections are not linear. You could have a black swan event. There could be [a famous] someone that walks off a plane wearing a Singani 63 hat – we do not know when there will be a tipping point event.”

Soderbergh has had to think creatively and has managed to engineer his own product placements – notably in a scene of his 2012 Magic Mike film. When it comes to exposure he’s not fussy and would welcome any film in which Singani 63 might appear. “Some brands might not want to see their product used [in certain films]. I don’t care. It’s a free advert that lasts for ever. They [characters] can be doing the worst shit imaginable – we are the brand for that. It’s a movie. Nobody will think: Singani makes you kill people.” 

But Soderbergh doesn’t limit his approach to what he knows. He went to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic a year back, will travel to Tales of the Cocktail this year and was on the verge on breaking off from the second series shoot of The Nick to head to Prowein, where his brand was showcased from the Bolivian wine stand. Maybe his team decided Düsseldorf isn’t as box office as Clive Owen, either way, they told him his presence wasn’t strictly necessary. 

Act one is to spread the brand’s wings beyond New York and LA to about six US cities, though talks about expansion to the UK and Australia are afoot. 

Building a global brand will require more than showbiz endorsement and Soderbergh knows he can’t do it alone. “Casa Real is a family business and we have a very good relationship. I want them to come on board with Act two – the expansion here and outside of the US. It’s the perfect solution. I need an equity partner – I am at the edge of my capability.”

There is probably a reason why Casa Real has not exported its product before – the sell doesn’t get much harder. But in Soderbergh, it has a storyteller to whom people listen. Bare-chested on horseback or not, it’s not every day Steven Soderbergh walks – or even trots – into your bar.