Steven Soderbergh was insistent that I try the fries. "You're allowed to eat them, right?" he asked. "I mean you're not on a special diet or anything?" We were comfortably seated at New York City's Top of the Standard bar, an impressive view of the wintry Hudson River and the lights of New Jersey flickering outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. Dulcet live jazz drifted through the room as patrons mingled in attire befitting the strictly enforced dress code: "smart, casual, well tailored." This was the first stop on a bar crawl that Soderbergh, the inimitable director and producer, was leading to introduce his latest project — Singani 63, a light and floral 500-year-old spirit distilled from in a small section of the Bolivian Andes.
But first the fries. Soderbergh politely asked the waiter to bring some ketchup after eyeing the béarnaise sauce they arrived with. "Oh, my God," he exclaimed after getting his first hit. "There's something about the batter and how thin they are…." I relented and tried one (pretty damn good) as he continued to rapidly expound upon a range of subjects, his trademark thick-framed glasses bobbing up and down as he spoke. And almost everything he said was, quite frankly, interesting. When he talks, he clenches his teeth slightly on one side, giving him a sort of crooked grin that tightens when he makes an impassioned point. This happened often, particularly when he referred to Singani 63 and the Top of the Standard fries, which he emphatically declared to be his favorite in the city.
Soderbergh first came across singani, distilled from Muscat of Alexandria grapes grown at high altitude, while shooting the film Che, when his Bolivian casting director gave him a bottle. He was instantly hooked. Now he chafes at government's classification of singani as a brandy; he believes it deserves its own category. It has a distinctive distilled grape flavor, with the fruity richness of a cognac. But it also has herbaceous burst that's more like a gin. Singani doesn't spend time aging in barrels like whiskey, so all the flavor comes from aromatics of the grapes. It is incredibly versatile and can basically be swapped out for any spirit, brown or clear, in any cocktail — martini, Manhattan, Negroni. For Soderbergh, who for years was strictly a vodka drinker, it was love at first sip.
As Soderbergh regaled us with the wonders of Singani 63, the conversation, as it does these days, turned towards politics. It was the night of the New Hampshire primary, so he launched into a tirade about how, while he agrees with much of Bernie Sanders's message, he would like to meet with him to help steer his narrative in a better direction. "He needs to stop talking only about the banks," he said, his voice beginning to rise. "What he's fighting against has been around forever!" He talked about running into Donald Trump years ago while enjoying a meal with George Clooney, noting that he was "perfectly polite."
After politics, Soderbergh turned the conversation toward directing, revealing that Channing Tatum first told him about the idea for Magic Mike on the set of Haywire. And he laughed about his much-discussed retirement from the film industry. Shortly after making that announcement a few years ago, his manager gave him the script for the first episode of The Knick, and he immediately committed to two seasons. "I knew that the next person the script went to would say yes," he said, so he jumped at the chance, even if it meant possibly disrupting some post-retirement family plans. "My wife was okay with it," he said, "since we'd be shooting here in New York." He also mentioned that he has enough story ideas to possibly continue the show for four more seasons.
But on the side, he's the brand ambassador and main investor in the Singani 63 import business, bringing the same intensity and work ethic to it over the past five years that he's known for at his day job. This includes leading journalists on bar crawl junkets like this one, going to Washington D.C. to lobby the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for a "singani" spirit category, meeting with potential investors for equity financing, and doing a series of interviews with renowned mixologists called "Profiles in Pourage."
But why exactly is he spending so much of his time (not to mention money) on a business that he admittedly is still learning about? For one thing, he loves the singani buzz. He instantly took to what he called his "desert island spirit" because of its fast-acting effects, which feels to him more like a high than bogged-down inebriation. At only 80 proof, it's not going to kick you in the face, but the buzz is fast-acting. He prefers it on the rocks, and can drink multiple glasses without getting knocked off his. Perhaps it's the sugar from the grapes, or has something to do with the fact that it's a clear spirit. To find out, he revealed that in just a few days' time he would be meeting with a neurologist at NYU to study the effects of singani on the brain. It's not enough just to feel the buzz; he wants to know why he's buzzing.
"At my day job, I'm known as somebody who does not compromise," said Soderbergh. "People realize I wouldn't do this if I didn't believe in it." He described how, after signing on to direct 20 episodes of The Knick, he told HBO to give him $50 million and leave him alone or he'd walk and go take art lessons from a friend. He doesn't need to be pushing booze, but he truly loves singani. He keeps cases of it at his office a block away from his Tribeca apartment, often making late night runs to replenish his supply when he runs out.
Later in the night, at The Fat Radish, a rustic, bustling Lower East Side eatery, as we sipped our fourth Singani 63 cocktail of the evening (made with lemon grass and champagne), a plate of duck-fat truffle chips arrived. Soderbergh quickly steered the conversation back to the fries at Top of the Standard. Again. It seemed that The Fat Radish's thick cut potato wedges would be facing an uphill battle to curry his favor. He reached across the table, speared one with his fork, took a bite, and emitted a satisfied sound. Then he took a sip.
Singani is an "everyman's drink," as Soderbergh puts it, and now it's showing up at esteemed cocktail bars in New York, California, New Jersey, and D.C., with plans for further expansion thanks to the efforts of Soderbergh and his sales director, Jonathan Brathwaite. Both mixologists and discerning drinkers are finding lots to like about Singani 63, but it's going to be an uphill battle to familiarize the general population with it. Soderbergh, however, seems up for the challenge.
As the night was winding down, he recounted how his father, a professor, would sit at the dinner table every night after eating and work for three hours, instilling in him a lifelong sense of commitment to the grind. Not that he's got it so bad. "I've got the best job in the world," he said, laughing. At this point in the night, it was hard to tell whether he was referring to his directing career, or his new gig as brand ambassador for a mostly unknown spirit that he hopes will set the cocktail world abuzz.