Steven Soderbergh is visible.
He cuts a lithe figure, to be sure. But, no doubt about it. There he is, seated at a table at the Standard Hotel bar. Indisputably corporeal. Reflecting light.
That may change when the drinking starts.
Steven Soderbergh is drinking his own brand of Bolivian liquor, Singani 63, which has a number of special characteristics. It’s made from a particular kind of grape grown at a particular altitude in one particular place in the world. It creates a particular kind of buzz–Soderbergh has a technical description for it: “It will f*&@ you up.” It may, depending on your particular circumstances and chemical composition, allow you to feel remarkably healthy the day after you’ve become f*cked up. And it will make you invisible.
Co.Create can verify that the clear liquid, a smoother, more drinkable variety of what you might put in the category of high octane, high-burn drinks–think eau-de-vie–does f*#% you up. And, we can confirm that two separate occasions that involved drinking to (by most standards) excess were followed by mornings distinctly lacking in the usual crippling after-effects. (On a third occasion, the hangover was in full effect, but the research may have been tainted.)
And the invisibility? Well, where notions of self, the presence or “visibility” of self, and the whole question of being perceived intersect with alcohol consumption, it’s a complicated question. It’s hard to know when one is truly seen. We’ll come back to that.
Of course among Singani 63’s most unusual traits is that it is a Bolivian liquor that has become the dedicated creative project of Steven Soderbergh, Oscar-winning director of Traffic, the Ocean’s franchise, Contagion, Magic Mike, and Behind the Candelabra who, since retiring from feature filmmaking has worked as executive producer and director of The Knick, and undertaken a steady stream of projects ranging from celebrating the staging virtuosity of Steven Spielberg by turning Raiders of the Lost Ark into a black and white, silent film scored by Trent Reznor, to developing a new Amazon show with David Gordon Green, set in a country club, in the ’80s.
For our sober, weekday afternoon purposes, that’s the most interesting thing about Singani 63–that Soderbergh has spent the last six years working through the painstaking and painful-sounding process of launching it into the U.S. It’s not a story of someone cleverly identifying a space in the market and concocting a product to exploit it, nor is it a story of a restless retiree who was looking for his version of a golden years vineyard. It’s a story about a translating a core ethic from filmmaking, or, more broadly, storytelling, to building, of all things, an alcohol brand.
When he discovered this new drink, Soderbergh wasn’t looking for a project. He was already on a project–a challenging one. The director first tried Singani as he commenced shooting his two-part 2008 feature Che in Spain and the film’s Bolivian casting director, Rodrigo Bellot, handed him a bottle. Soderbergh, whose, sharp, direct style of speaking extends to his assessment of what he likes in a drink (“Wherever I am going to go, I like to get there”) was immediately taken with the unusual spirit. It had a unique story, certainly. Singani is the national drink of Bolivia. It’s made exclusively from white Muscat of Alexandria grapes grown at 5,250 feet in the Andes– which means it comes from the highest vineyards in the world, or as the promotional literature now describes it, “a terrain so high, most gringos would either pass out or feel as though they had barbed wire wrapped around their heads.” The drink’s history goes back to the mid-1500s when Spanish missionaries brought the grape to Bolivia. It has a Designation of Origin and a Geographical Indication.
But Soderbergh was particularly struck by its effects–a buzz-y sort of sensation, rather than a sloppy, wave-goodbye-to-your-motor-skills-if-you-can-still-wave kind of drunk. “I had literally never had a drink that I had that reaction to,” he says.
And then, egged on by some of his crew who had sampled and loved the drink, the director decided to share his finding with the world, with that question that has guided humankind’s greatest leaps forward and most spectacular follies: how hard can it be?
If he had any vision for how the enterprise would play out, he says, “it was completely naive and insane.”
“I have been able to make my way to this point by, pretty much, moment to moment, day to day, being able to distinguish between something that is ordinary, and something that’s exceptional,” he says. “That can be in the way a shot is composed, or a performance or anything. That’s all you are doing. You’re sort of defining what better is, and continuing to try and find it. My attitude, when I was exposed to Singani, was: for someone who has been a drinker for a long time, I thought this is really exceptional. This is totally unique. And so I said to myself, ‘How hard can it be to bring something this good and tell people this is good.’ I just really didn’t understand what was involved…”
In the years since, Soderbergh has gone to the hard knock school of what’s involved. After Bellot introduced Soderbergh to the Bolivian producer of Singani, Casa Real, and the company agreed to make a new label for export (the director named his new brand Singani 63 in a nod to his birth year), and after Soderbergh cleared the necessary hurdles to get 250 cases of his Bolivian invisibility liquid into the U..S.–via New Jersey– he recruited a brand management company, Brand Action Team to help him bring Singani to market. It was then that the head of that company, Steve Raye, sat the budding booze baron down for what Soderbergh calls a depressing three-hour monologue on the inner workings of the alcohol business. As deflating as that experience was, Soderbergh says there was “a glimmer of hope buried in that monologue,” which was Raye telling him “‘you have a really good product. That’s the good news.’”
That belief in the product is what’s driven the project, what keeps Soderbergh enthusiastic despite the grinding nature of clearing an alcohol product through regulatory agencies and getting it distributed, and it’s what has kept him involved in every aspect of building the brand.
The belief in the product also provides a creative and career throughline–the thing that makes this seemingly curious detour actually make sense as one of the projects that’s filling the director’s “retirement” years. As we’ve discussed here previously, Soderbergh stepped away from feature filmmaking at the top of his powers. He’s been generous with his opinions on what’s wrong with Hollywood and the business of cinema (his 2013 state of cinema speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival should be required viewing for anyone making films or trying to understand the business of doing so) but he boils down his decision to exit the studio moviemaking game to the fact that it was getting unfun.
Dealing with the ATF, FDA and the TTB on alcohol regulations isn’t what anyone would call a good time in the classic sense, but, like making The Knick, it was the kind of fun a creator has bringing an experience to an audience in exactly the manner he sees fit, even, or especially when constraints of time (as was the case with The Knick and its tight shooting schedule) or law (as has been the case with Singani) necessitate creative problem solving. It’s why he’s done the heavy temporal, creative, and financial lifting himself–he wanted to shape all facets of the brand personally before entertaining the idea of bringing on a distribution partner or financial backer. “I wanted to establish the brand; I wanted to establish, most importantly, the voice of it, the way it was presented.”
So far, that voice is expressed through the packaging–modern, but with a nod to the drink’s Bolivian history–and the promotional materials, all written by Soderbergh, and designed in collaboration with Joanna Bush and Briana Auel. The first, unofficial ad for the product has the retro look of something that David Ogilvy might have put together after becoming invisible. The ad features the director and a sheep in a wood paneled room, with the tag line “This Sh*t Will F*ck You Up.” A new “advertorial” destined for beverage magazines ups the arid, slightly absurd humor of the “ad” and sell sheet–it features a Q&A with a slightly unhinged Dr. Soderbergh and co-opts a famous photo of a shirt-averse Russian dictator. As a brand architect, Soderbergh’s got an obvious edge–after all, hardly any brands have access to an A-list director as creative consultant and content producer, for free. But he also seems to have a decent grasp on what makes modern marketing work (a grasp that has eluded many major marketers).
Soderbergh favors the kind of entertaining “content” that establishes aesthetic and emotion, rather than hitting selling points. “My favorite kind of advertising comes at things from an oblique angle,” he says. “When somebody does something that surprises you in a way you find either funny or emotional, some sort of switch has been flipped and you start to think about their product in a different way.” If the brand takes off, there’s an idea for a deliciously weird content series that Soderbergh’s noodling with a famous friend. In the meantime, the brand has scored its first product placement deal–and it’s a doozy. Singani 63 appears in a long scene (seriously, the duration and variety of shots of the bottle in the scene would make a brand integration pro weep) in David Fincher’s hit, Gone Girl. Rather than an official placement, it was more a favor or perhaps just a gag–Fincher had called Soderbergh to ask for a few bottles; Soderbergh didn’t even know why until he saw some stills from the eventual scene.
Through this whole process, he says, “I keep going back to it and saying, ‘But I really liked it.’ So that has to mean something. That’s the Rosetta Stone. If I thought that, then someone else will feel that way. That’s how things start. That’s how my whole career has been built.”
So far, there’s ample indication that those in the business of moving booze feel the product warrants attention. Sales director Jon Brathwaite has found success getting Singani 63 into bars in New York, the first stop on the Singani non-Bolivian-world domination tour. As of August, Singani was also picked of by several bars at least one retail group in L.A. And, in a major coup, Soderbergh and team recently landed a deal with top wine and spirits distributor, Empire Merchants/Charmer-Sunbelt Group.
Empire CEO Lloyd Sobel, admits that the tone of Soderbergh’s unique promotional materials was a factor in the deal. “He brings a fresh set of eyes and thoughts to the wine and liquor industry,” says Sobel. “He’s adding that personality that seems to have left the industry because it’s become so corporate.” But beyond finding the Singani sell sheet hilarious, Sobel says he was interested because the market is as ready as it’s going to be for the unusual beverage. “What’s going on in the spirit category is the explosion of craft spirits. People are more apt to try new adventurous products that are made in a craft way,” says Sobel. “I think his timing is good. Five or six years ago it wouldn’t have been readily acceptable for accounts to take on a new category with a strange name without a huge marketing budgets. Because of the whole consumer focus on craft spirits and heritage, etc., he has a good opportunity. I can see mixologists embracing this product because it is different; it’s a discovery item and it’s highly mixable, like vodka” (a spirit that Sobel says is leveling off after years of growth).
Soderbergh acknowledges that bit of luck inherent in the timing–the fact that it took him long enough to get Singani to New York that when it did finally land, the market was more receptive for an unusual product. While he initially thought he was dealing with a kind of vodka–Singani looks like vodka– the ATF told him it was classified as a brandy. In other words, instead of being another vodka after the explosion of vodka, he was going to be more or less in a category by himself with a unique product, at a time when “boutique” spirits are on the upswing and when people are more interested in having a signature drink, something (one hates to even say it) authentic. And while “authenticity” is a word that’s been subject to abuse from the marketing world, it’s still an important idea. And Singani is nothing if not authentic.
Which brings us to the product and what the hell it is, exactly.
Singani actually doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It says brandy on the tin. The ATF said it was brandy. But, according to Soderbergh, it’s not brandy, at least by some important, accepted definitions of the word. One core categorical disconnect has to do with wood–brandy, by definition, is aged in wood barrels; Singani is not aged, and it does its not aging not in wood. There are many, many other fascinating reasons that the Brandy shoe doesn’t fit, and team Singani 63 is outlining all of them for the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau, as they make the case that Singani is not only not a brandy, it’s its own category.
The invisibility effect very likely won’t be among the arguments in that case.
So, about that.
Soderbergh, again, was clearly visible to Co.Create through one Singani-enhanced interview though not visible during two follow-up interviews (perhaps because those interviews were conducted by phone). He describes invisibility as more an erasure of the idea of self than a floating-sunglasses sort of thing. “It’s more the feeling that you have somehow bonded so completely into your surroundings that you have become one with everybody and everything that’s around. So the idea of you as an individual has kind of dropped away.”
And while the drink is available at higher end bars, those seeking invisibility at their local store may be surprised at the accessible price point. “I didn’t want it to be a ‘luxury’ liquor, because it’s not,” Soderbergh says. “That’s what I liked about it–in Bolivia, it’s accessible to everyone; everyone drinks it.”
The pricing also reflects the overall purpose of this whole exercise, which was to bring what he deemed an exceptional product to market. Soderbergh’s idea of success is sustainability–that the brand can be a viable business, not outsell Smirnoff.
“That’s the goal,” he says. And within that goal is the same thing that has driven any of his creative projects. “When you get someone to try it who hasn’t tried it–that’s fun. That’s like making something and having someone see it and say, ‘I really like it.’ It’s the same sensation. Nothing beats that.”