Singani: a new audience for Bolivia’s oldest spirit

Singani – a clear spirit distilled from Muscat of Alexandria grapes – has been made in Bolivia since the 16th century, but has only recently begun to gain an audience outside South America. It also comes with a host of unusual side effects, Adam Partridge discovers

Words by Adam Partridge

It was high in the rugged Bolivian altiplano that I experienced my first and only phantom pregnancy. You can imagine that no one was more surprised than me, a 30-something-year-old male, to discover this latest development. Yellow fever, dengue, malaria, rabies: these were the sorts of inconveniences I’d prepared myself for in South America, but never pregnancy.

Was it the altitude? I was at some 3,800 metres above sea level. Or was it the singani I had been sipping the previous evening? Steven Soderbergh, the film director and owner of the Singani 63 brand, believes Bolivia’s national spirit can make you levitate. Surely, then, it must have the power to impregnate. All I know is that when you wake in the middle of the night in a dark hotel room overlooking Lake Titicaca thinking that your waters have broken, you have many questions and few answers.

A quick Google search the next morning of ‘man dreaming he is pregnant’ produced a litany of results on the not uncommon subject. The dream interpretation I favoured most spoke of new beginnings and unexplored horizons which, three months into a seven-month journey around South America, did make sense. Whilst my head was still throbbing from the ‘soroche’ or altitude sickness, at least my mind had been put at ease.

Bottles of Singani 63 in Bolivia
Bottles of Singani 63

What is Singani and how is it made?

Singani is a clear spirit that is distilled from Muscat of Alexandria grapes. It’s relatively unknown outside of South America, although it has been made in Bolivia ever since the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. It is produced more like an eau-de-vie, although it’s actually classed as a brandy for export reasons. These days, it has a Denominación de Origen guaranteeing that strict production methods are adhered to, as well as it only being made in four out of Bolivia’s nine provinces.

While this highly aromatic spirit has only ever been produced on Bolivian soil, the same can’t be said for pisco. Both Peru and Chile are to this day embroiled in a fierce rivalry over the beginnings of the clear liquor which is most commonly drunk in the velvety yet citrusy Pisco Sour. Modern singani producers must doff their hats to the 16th century Bolivian spirit traders who began calling their product ‘singani’ to differentiate it from the clear ‘aguardiente’ spirit that was being made in Peru, which in turn established a reliable brand name for the grape distillate.

It’s surprising that Bolivia has only recently taken action to protect singani’s sovereignty as it has watched neighbouring Chile and Peru fight over pisco’s heritage for centuries. Decrees enshrined in Bolivian law mean that singani has both a Denominación de Origen and an Indicación Geográphica attributed to it to ensure consistency in production and to safeguard the regions the spirit is permitted to be produced in, as well as setting the altitude range grapes can be grown for it: 5,250 – 9,200 ft above sea level.

A bottle of Singani 63
Singani 63

Domestically, the lion’s share of production comes from the Casa Real brand, as well as Bodegas Kuhlmann which owns the Los Parrales and Tres Estrellas labels. There is also a whole host of smaller producers whose limited operations mean that they usually tend to only supply their own regions. Closer to home, Soderburgh’s Singani 63 – made by Casa Real – is now widely available in the UK, and scooped an IWSC silver medal back in 2015. In bars, singani is fast gaining a reputation of being highly versatile in cocktails with it adding delicious floral notes to a classic negroni when used instead of gin.

But singani isn’t just a cool, unique bottle for your drinks trolley. It’s also a good news story for a country that’s been in the press for all the wrong reasons lately. The country’s ex-President Evo Morales is in self-imposed exile in Argentina after being ousted from his seat in an apparent coup d’état. Over 4m hectares of the Bolivian Amazon were recently lost to intense forest fires. Critics argue that these fires are directly correlated to the government’s deforestation policy to free up more land for farming. And if recent events weren’t enough, the nation is still reeling from the repercussions of the War of the Pacific with Chile and that heavy, fateful day in 1884 which saw Bolivia lose both a large portion of its territory, as well as its access to the Pacific.

As I stand watching another truckload of singani head to the airport ready to leave Bolivia as air cargo bound for the UK, a new dawn breaks over Lake Titicaca. I can see smaller boats putting out onto the lake, and then, far off, in the distance, carried on the winds drifting inland from the Pacific, I hear the cries of a newborn baby. This time though, it’s real.