If you haven’t heard much about singani, you might very soon. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury (TTB) earlier this year officially recognized Bolivian singani as a unique type of brandy and a distinctive product of Bolivia.
Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, founder of Singani 63, deserves much of the credit: He worked closely with the Bolivian government during the past eight years to prove to the TTB that singani deserved its own classification.
Soderbergh; Luis Pablo Granier, a fourth generation operator of Bolivian distillery Casa Real, which makes Singani 63; and Ivy Mix, author of Spirits of Latin America and co-owner of the Brooklyn bar Leyenda, participated in a panel at the Bar Convent Brooklyn show on June 14 titled “WTF is Singani: Bringing the Newest Spirit Category to the U.S.”
First off, how did Soderbergh get involved with singani? A Bolivian casting director introduced to him to singani in 2007 while shooting the movie Che in Spain. “I thought it was delicious, and that other people would think the same,” he said. Soderbergh worked with Casa Real to launch the Singani 63 brand in 2014.
The fact that most people don’t know what singani is remains the biggest barrier to market, Soderbergh said. The brandy designation had been another obstacle: Amber-colored brandy doesn’t look like the clear singani, plus “young people don’t like [brandy] much.”
So WTF is singani? It’s a grape eau de vie that’s often compared to pisco, the spirit that both Chile and Peru claim to have created. But singani is distilled from the muscat d’Alexandria grape grown in high altitudes — 5,200 feet above sea level — of the Andes, Mix said. The spirit’s botanical, floral flavor is “super elegant but intense.”
Singani has been around Bolivia for 500 years, Granier said, though the muscat d’Alexandria grape originally came from Egypt. The Granier family has been producing singani since 1925: “It’s all we know how to do.”
Granier’s great-grandfather started the brand to take the business to the next level. “But this is beyond a product — it’s a culture,” he added, noting that his grandmother would also cook with singani and use it as a remedy for colds.
There are 50 singani distilleries registered in Bolivia, and the recognition that’s happening in the U.S. is incentivizing them, Granier said. The TTB’s new classification will no doubt make a difference. “It’s like somebody calling you by your name instead of another name.”
Still, it has to be a quality product no matter what you call it. “With enough marketing,” Soderbergh said, “you can convince people that a show or a movie is good, even when it isn’t. It’s a little different with something you put in your mouth.”