He’s one of Hollywood’s most bankable directors, but he’s also an auteur and draws praise from the art set. Now Steven Soderbergh is launching a passion project: bringing Bolivia’s national tipple to America…and changing US policy in the process.
From Ocean’s 11 (and 12 and 13 and 8) to Contagion, from Che to the recent Netflix feature The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh is officially Hollywood royalty. But he’s also a super nice guy who grew up in Louisiana and was a dirty Vodka Martini kind of a guy, until a fateful party in Madrid with the crew filming Che, his two-part Che Guevara biopic. One sip of Singani and he was hooked.
We spoke to Steven about his new Liquor venture, Singani 63. Along the way we touched on drinking buddies (George Clooney, anyone?), art theft and how not to mix him a drink. And if you’re a Liquor exec, be advised: he’s looking for a business partner.
How was work today—was it okay for you?Steven: Well, I feel like I should be interviewing you.
Is that so? You know that’s funny, I interviewed Bill Murray a couple years ago for Esquire magazine about Slovenia Vodka, and most of it was him interviewing me about living in Slovenia and my grandmother-in-law’s village champion homemade apple Schnapps, so it’s funny that you say that.Steven: Yeah, cause obviously I…it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m interested in art theft and forgery, and you’re the guy.
Let me get started by saying, um, are you by any chance wearing a NASCAR suit at the moment?Steven: No, that’s only for very special occasions (like this Flaviar interview). I’ve only worn it probably once.
First of all, congratulations on getting Singani officially accepted in the US as an alcohol category. I know I’m supposed to ask you about bouquet and tasting notes and such, but that’s a major deal, and more about that should be said. You really beneficially changed the national policy which is not easy to do.Steven: Yeah, well we’re waiting right now for the proposed rulemaking to be officially posted on the federal register—it was supposed to go up September 1st—but they’ve been dealing with delays so it could be literally any day now where… they put up this thing saying we’re gonna do this and there’s this 60 day public comment period, where we will try to marshal all the support that we can find to say to the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) and the Treasury Department: “You should absolutely do this, we support this idea.”
A friend of mine described the Singani version of the Negroni as being a gateway drug.
So, as you can imagine, a very elaborate political process because in our case, we ended up following the Cachaça method, which was to actually negotiate a bilateral trade agreement between the US and Bolivia for mutual recognition, and I think without that piece, this wouldn’t have gone forward.
What was the process like, and how hands-on was it for you? Or was it more something where you got the idea and passed it off to lawyer types?Steven: No, I mean, it’s been a fairly intimate process, that we started in November of 2014. I went down to Washington DC, and sat in a room across a table from 17 people, representing the 4 different agencies that supervise alcohol, and… At the time, I was hoping that this publicly-stated mandate of the TTB would be enough to carry us—which was to inform the consumer.
As I got further into the actual business itself, I discovered that people were really confused by the fact that this was being labeled as a Brandy, which according to their approach is technically true—it is distilled from a fruit. But the fact that it is not aged, and the fact that it is clear, was very confusing to people, and young people in particular do not have a very positive attitude towards Brandy, so it was really hurting us.
After we had gone through the normal process for a few years and nothing was moving, I sort of had a long conversation with my team and I said, “We gotta kick this up a notch, we’re not really getting anywhere.” And so, we started hatching this plan to see if we could get this to governments to make this trade agreement, and that took a few years, so… [laughs] This is supposed to be the penultimate step—this posting—they’ve never posted something for proposed rulemaking and then not granted the category.
I think that the biggest difficulty for us has been that on paper, it reads like a Pisco, but in your mouth, it really doesn’t.
But as you can imagine, I’m very anxious that after all this time that it actually goes through and that something from left field doesn’t show up during this public comment process that throws us completely off track—I’m really nervous about that.
The whole idea of calling it Brandy seems totally counterintuitive. I think of Brandy as its own category and more Cognac-like, and Singani couldn’t be more different from that. I’m curious how, given that it's relatively unknown to American consumers, it relates to other Spirit categories… Or how do you explain it to people who haven’t tasted it yet.Steven: Well that’s been the trick, I mean, it’s one thing to bring a brand to market if you’re in a category that everybody knows, whether it’s Gin or Vodka or Tequila or Mezcal. Most people in the booze business would say, “Well, you’re really fighting an uphill battle here,” cause not only are you a small brand and trying to introduce yourself into the market, but you have to have this huge education component to describe to people what it is. And I think that the biggest difficulty for us has been that on paper, it reads like a Pisco, but in your mouth, it really doesn’t.
And so, from the beginning, we’ve kind of gone with the approach that hopefully this category will confirm. Which is when people say, “what is it like?” Well, it’s not really like anything and that’s the point. So, I think, the category at least makes that legitimate, when I say that it’s not really like anything else.
Jägermeister was probably the most exotic thing on the back bar in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1981.
Having the category makes that true, and also from a purely practical standpoint, if you are granted a category, at that point, every self-respecting bar has to have at least a bottle, because you want to make sure that you’re representing all the categories out there. So, for us, potentially it’s a real game changer in terms of the profile of the Spirit, and also the potential then for me to hopefully partner with a company that can help me expand.
We’re kind of reaching the point where we can continue to expand, but it’s all been slowed down by COVID of course, but if we get the category and this thing starts really taking off, I’m gonna need some help—I won’t be able to privately continue to finance this and take it into a scale that I want to take it, I’m going to need a partner.
We’ve had a couple people kind of kick the tires of the brand and said we love the Spirit itself, we love the story, we love the voice of the brand, we love everything you’re doing—when you get to category, call us back.
I love how you described the 3-act structure of drinking a sip, and I wondered if you could take me and the readers through a 3-act structure of your own personal drinking career—for lack of a better term. If you imagine your first glass of Singani at the Madrid Che party as Act 3, maybe the latest chapter, I wondered if you could tell us your earliest memorable alcohol story, and then maybe one that might be an Act 2.Steven: I’m old enough that I grew up in Louisiana when the drinking age was 18. So, early on, I had access to theoretically, anything that I would have wanted, but my memory of going to a bar in the early ‘80s was that there were just a handful of cocktails. My memory is that there wasn’t a wide variety… Jägermeister was probably the most exotic thing on the back bar in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1981—or at least it felt that way.
There was a period for instance where Mezcal—especially in New York—was just everywhere, I mean just everywhere you went.
And so, I wasn’t much of a Beer drinker. I like Wine, but I’m incapable of getting any kind of a buzz from Wine for any reason that I metabolize it in such a way that no matter how much I drink, I can’t even get a buzz. It’s appeal for me is strictly as a note within a larger meal not that I’m gonna necessarily have a good time.
So, I ended up in an attempt to just keep things simple, I was a Vodka drinker. I drank Vodka Martinis—that was my go-to. And I felt it was simple, and I was fairly content to stay there, because the whole culture of Spirits and mixology was completely invisible to me. I just didn’t think about it at all, until this thing happened, and suddenly a room opened up that I started thinking about it. I like learning new stuff, but this has been particularly complex.
Some of your films are ensemble pieces—I’m thinking in particular the Ocean’s movies—where assembling the perfect complementary team is a key to success, and I’m wondering what’s the best team to mingle in a glass with Singani; I know you like it on the rocks, but it’s also a great foundation, so who should Singani recruit for its next mission.Steven: I’ll back up for a second. When we started taking Singani around to mixologists in New York, asking them for their guidance and their opinions, the versatility conversation started and what we realized was we were potentially in a very good position in terms of the long term potential for the brand, because of its mixability and the fact that it seemed egoless, and works well as a base Spirit and also works well in a split-base, or just as an augmentation or enhancement of pre-existing classic cocktails or new cocktails.
What that enables us to do really is to pivot with any trends that are occurring with more successful brands. There was a period for instance where Mezcal—especially in New York—was just everywhere, I mean just everywhere you went. Mezcal cocktails were on the menu, people were asking for it. I mean look, that was the 15-year process for Mezcal to get their category—which is actually a super category—and to have the general public start to be aware of it.
So we had a lot of success essentially piggy-backing and drafting off of the success of Mezcal because Singani actually plays really well with Mezcal for people who find the smokiness of Mezcal just a little much, the Singani really just pulls that back a little bit. So I remember this 6- or 9-month period where we were tagging along behind Mezcal with a lot of success, but the good news is that if you’re this versatile, we don’t have to worry about trends, we don’t have to worry about people getting tired of Singani because you can move it in so many directions, and that was another reason why early on when we were advised by very successful people with their own brands to come up with a single Singani cocktail to promote, we really resisted that.
There was a period for instance where Mezcal—especially in New York—was just everywhere, I mean just everywhere you went.
Because my attitude to this was, “Well people get tired of things, and they want to try something new, why should I be telling a mixologist what to do with this?” Even if it was a great drink, in 4-6 months people will move on to something else. Even though it’s a more complex narrative to describe its versatility, we all agreed among the few of us running this company, that we wanted to stay with our mixability narrative—a) because it’s true, and b) because it keeps us evergreen, I think.
Is there a cocktail that you’ve ever encountered called the Soderbergh, and if not, what should it contain?Steven: No, I haven’t, unfortunately. Well I have to say, a friend of mine described the Singani version of the Negroni as being a gateway drug. Especially in our version we switch out the Campari for Aperol, and it’s a really… I really like the flavor profile of that cocktail.
I feel like it’s really pleasing in a lot of ways, other than my Singani on the rocks, which we call the Subwoofer. If I’m gonna order a mixed Singani cocktail, I usually get a Singani Negroni—it’s really, really tasty.
What was the isolation period like for you—I understand you got a lot more writing done? I’m curious to know if you developed any new work habits or any new drinking habits, like maybe a cocktail breakfast?Steven: Well it's weird, the first 3 months of the lockdown I didn’t drink at all. Then after the 3 months ended, and nobody knew what the next phase of COVID was gonna be, I sort of started slowly working my way back into having cocktails. I was very concerned that getting into a heavy drinking rotation while being in some form of lockdown would not be a good idea—it wouldn’t be a good idea for my work or for my life.
Singani actually plays really well with Mezcal for people who find the smokiness of Mezcal just a little much.
But what ended up happening was, a couple months ago in New York, some bars and restaurants in my neighborhood started opening up with limited outdoor seating capacity, and my wife and I very much wanted to support these neighborhood venues. So, we started going out a lot and got back into a regular sort of drinking situation, and as you know, I think a lot of people… In order to somehow get through the day… I mean, I had the easiest version of lockdown of anybody you’ve ever met.
I was very concerned that getting into a heavy drinking rotation while being in some form of lockdown would not be a good idea.
I was not in any sort of dire financial straits; I could be home. And even I found myself with plenty of work to do, really at a certain point, finding waves of existential dread just washing over me regularly. It would be harder for me to focus, I would just be turning the hours for the day to end until I could be unconscious, and I thought, “Wow, if this is how I’m feeling, I don’t know what people with actual problems must be going through,” because that was starting to get to me at a certain point. Fortunately, the movies that got postponed in March, we just started up again.
*This issue of Flaviar Magazine is dedicated to adapting to and thriving in times of change. Do you have any more general advice for the readers?Steven: Well, I think what we’re witnessing right now is the exposure of a lot of undercurrents within the culture, at least here in the States, that we’re… Look, I think transparency is a good thing, and so I think what we’re all going through has laid bare some real flaws in the way the political and economic structure of this country at least, is set up.
Even before all of this, I always felt things could turn into Mad Max really quickly here if things broke a certain way, and now COVID have kind of put that front and center.
What I’m hoping will come out of this is some real talk about the unsustainability of these trajectories. What’s terrifying to think about is that if things continue in a certain direction that there will be many millions more people with the sensation that they have nothing to lose and that is where desperate activity begins.
We can see that in the neighborhood I live in downtown New York, a lot of boarded up retail shops, more people living on the streets, there was a stabbing at the subway station that I take every day when things are normal—the other day there was a murder. Even before all of this, I always felt things could turn into Mad Max really quickly here if things broke a certain way, and now COVID has kind of put that front and center.
My other concern of course, is the absolute devastation that the hospitality industry is experiencing right now. All of the early stimulus money went to the chains and the bigger operators in that context, and the independent restaurant/bar owners didn’t get anything, apart from the $600/week payments and they’re really hurting.
…that comes back to me talking about having a partner that has the infrastructure that I can hook into, because we don’t have the manpower or the resources to treat all of these places a la carte, while trying to build a name for ourselves.
They’ve got a bill in front of Congress right now that apparently has just stalled. You must know that this is their whole life, like, these are people I’ve become friends with over the last 7 years while we’ve been in the market, and they put their whole lives into these places and they can’t survive.
They’re estimating now that 75-80% of independent bars and restaurants will close permanently. That’s a problem. I don’t know how that’s going to get reversed. And it's sad because in my case, our sense of your neighborhood is so tied into the bars and the restaurants that you go to repeatedly. These are people that you get to know, and they know you. I’m worried about the cultural effect of any independently owned venue going under—That’s a real loss.
I’d like to finish up with just a few rapid-fire short questions for you. I’m calling from Slovenia and I’m dying to try Singani, but is there any chance it’s going to be available in Europe in the near future?Steven: We are currently only in the UK. We get calls from a lot of countries outside of the US asking if they can bring it in, and my whole attitude is, look, it’s really nice to get somebody from Israel or Japan or Australia or Spain, calling and saying we really want to bring Singani here, but I want to make sure that if we do, it’s going to work.
And that comes back to me talking about having a partner that has the infrastructure that I can hook into, because we don’t have the manpower or the resources to treat all of these places a la carte, while trying to build a name for ourselves—it’s just impossible. So, we keep a list of everybody that calls, and we let them know… And we talk about the category, and we say there’s going to be a domino effect if we get this category…
You know what? I’m going to go with my wife.
Because once it's recognized in the US, then it starts to be recognized outside the US, and then our story becomes simpler and we can make those moves. It was a very difficult “no,” when somebody from Spain called, because that’s where I first had it. It would be great to go full circle here, but we’re just not prepared. I don’t want to show up to Spain and lose.
A favorite cocktail that doesn’t involve Singani?Steven: When I was 18 it would have been a Long Island Iced Tea, since every 18 year old knew its alcohol content level is about 80%, so that would have been something that I lost into early. But my normal go-to before Singani, was a Dirty Ketel One Martini—that was my thing.
I will take a good bottle of Brunello—I’ve never had a bad bottle.
The problem is, it’s shocking how easy it is to not make a good Dirty Martini. I was actually at a very high-end account in New York, I ordered a Dirty Martini, and I saw the guy just pour olive juice into the finished drink.
Oh, can’t do that…Steven: And I said, “Dude, you can’t do that, like what are you doing?” This was like a $19 Martini, and he just poured the juice into it and I was stunned. That’s sort of my metric for a place that I’m going to go to, or used to be, is how they make a Dirty Martini.
Okay, who is your favorite drinking buddy?Steven: Well, that’s a long list… A really long list… Also, because one of the people that I would put on that list has his own obscenely successful brand that he created, so… I would say… You know what? I’m going to go with my wife. Our ritual, when we’re at home, of me coming home…
What I’ll do is I’ll work all day and come home at around 5:30, my wife and I will go to one of our neighborhood joints, we will eat dinner at the bar, and have a few cocktails. Then I will go home and do 3 more hours of work. That time to me is very precious—the 5:30 to 7 o’clock—just my wife and I, having some drinks. I’m very, very protective of that.
That’s beautiful. Happy hour. Sounds good to me. If you were going to a desert island, and you could bring one movie with you and one bottle of something good besides Singani, what would you watch and what would you bring?Steven: Uh, let’s see… Probably The Third Man… And… what bottle… A Brunello… I know I was listing one earlier, but I do really like Brunello… I first got given a bottle of Brunello when we were shooting in Rome in 2004, and it’s really good. I will take a good bottle of Brunello—I’ve never had a bad bottle. So, at the end, I gotta go with the Brunello.
Makes sense. Also if you’re stuck on a desert island, you’d want your wits about you, and it sounds like if there’s ever a situation where you need to be in a drinking contest, if you pick Wine you’d win by a mile.Steven: Oh absolutely! There’s no question. I feel confident when I have to go head-to-head with somebody that I can maintain composure through the end, whatever the end looks like.
*This interview in an extended version of what has been published in print, which has been edited for clarity and length.