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A Bolivian Grape Harvest with Steven Soderbergh

Singani is made from Muscat of Alexandria grapes, cultivated in Bolivia's mountainous vineyards. The Ocean’s Trilogy director has been hooked on the spirit since his first taste ten years ago, and took me along to see how the grapes are harvested.

"I used to be a Ketel One drinker but the first time I tasted singani, just before I started shooting Che in June 2007, I knew it would be my desert-island drink."

Steven Soderbergh, director of Sex, Lies and Videotape, Traffic, and The Ocean's Trilogy, is telling me about his first taste of singani, the distilled spirit made with Bolivian grapes.

We're in the Santa Ana Valley near Tarija, a small city in Bolivia's key grape-producing region. The director scopes out the craggy terroir responsible for producing that memorable first sip of singani a decade ago. Wearing a stone-coloured jacket, he fits right in, scaling the rocky terrain and knocking back singani like a hardened Tarija local.

High-altitude vineyards in Tarija, Bolivia. All photos by the author.

Muscat of Alexandria grapes.

Singani is made from a single Bolivian grape variety, Muscat of Alexandria. The spirit has peppery notes similar to tequila, but also a gin-like, aromatic sweetness. Soderbergh was first presented with a bottle of the stuff in Spain, and became instantly captivated by its smooth texture—welcome relief after knocking back throat-burning vodka for much of his adult life.

"I was at Che's opening party in Madrid, when my Bolivian casting director, Rodrigo Bellot, gifted me a bottle of singani," he remembers. "I had no idea what it was but as soon as I tried it on the rocks, it was an across-the-room moment. And, as I knew I'd be busy filming for the next five months, I had a new issue to contend with: what was this and how could I get more? We ended up creating a mule train so I had bottles following me around as I filmed Che in Spain, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. At the end of the shoot, one of my crew asked, 'Steven, how are you going to keep the party going?'"

Soderbergh's obsession with singani had well and truly begun.

Director Steven Soderbergh helps harvests the grapes.

Given its grape base, singani is often compared with neighbouring Peru's pisco, but the differences are clear. Pisco is produced from eight grape varieties, while Bolivia's singani only uses Muscat and the grapes must be grown at altitude. The juice is made into wine, then distilled and aged in stainless steel tanks for around eight months.

"I was hooked by the fast-acting buzz that vodka had never given me. [Singani had] a different effect, more of a high," says Soderbergh.

Fuelled by that buzz, he vowed to share singani with a wider audience. The director launched his own version of the spirit, Singani 63, with prestigious Tarija's distillery Casa Real in 2014.

Singani 63, Soderburgh's own brand of singani.

The rocky Tarija vineyards we're visiting today are where Soderbergh grows the grapes. He peels away skin of one to reveal an intense floral aroma—one that Bolivian bartenders make use of in sour drinks or mixed into mules in place of vodka.

But Soderbergh tells me that while he enjoys these cocktails, there is only one way to enjoy singani.

"On the rocks, with a single, giant ice cube."