Singani is the spirit of Bolivia…
For 500 years, Singani has been produced in high altitude valleys hidden throughout the Andes mountain range. Singani, much like Bolivia itself, is expressive, exotic and mysterious, but once explored it tends to captivate its audience. It is a drink with centuries of history, though it is little known outside the country’s borders. Singani is deceptively simple: an unaged brandy distilled from the wine of high altitude Muscat of Alexandria grapes. It originates in the Cinti Valley of Bolivia, a growing region of lush green vineyards and orchards surrounded by sharp canyon walls and red, rocky soil. It was here that missionaries of the Dominican order arrived during the Spanish colonization to plant vineyards in order to satisfy the Catholic church’s growing thirst for wine.
Dominican monks planted Muscat of Alexandria and Misionera grapes (aka País, Negra Criolla) in the Cinti Valley, one of the few places where grapevines could thrive in the tropical latitudes of what is now Bolivia. The Cinti Valley is essentially a long, narrow canyon that runs 80 kilometers from north to south with an average elevation of 2,350 meters above sea level (7,700 feet). At this elevation the monks were able to escape the tropical climate found in much of Bolivia and encountered a more temperate climate that is suitable for grapevines. Muscat of Alexandria thrived in this area, producing good yields and wines of high aromatic intensity. The Muscat grape family is known for its intense aromas, but here in the altitude the vine and grapes are exposed to more aggressive growing conditions producing a unique expression of this classic grape.
Why Muscat of Alexandria?
The Muscat grape is considered an ancient grape as it is one of the oldest genetically unmodified grapevines still in existence. This grape originated in North Africa and was consumed by Ancient Egyptians, which most likely explains the grape name. These grapes are prized for their intense fruit and floral aromas, and often make wines and spirits that are thought to reflect a truly grape flavor. Muscat grapes are high in compounds called terpenes, which are extremely volatile compounds that are produce enormous effects on the organoleptic properties of wine. These terpenes typically present aromas of lavender, eucalyptus, lychee, though Muscat is more known for aromas of rose, citrus blossom and geranium. Even though science has identified the compounds that create these aromas (ex. geraniol, ß-damascenone, etc.), little is understood about their purpose in the grapes. It is thought that they help attract certain insects or even predators of herbivores in order to aid in the fertilization and protection of the plant.
Muscat of Alexandria was brought to Bolivia by the Spanish colonists and missionaries because of its long tradition as a prized wine grape in Spain. There Muscat of Alexandria (Moscatel de Alejandría) is often made into sweet and fortified wines, all with intense aromatics consistent with the varietal. These vines are quite resistant, surviving pests, molds and droughts. This made them great candidates for traveling with a higher likelihood of adapting to unknown new world climates. This helps explain their success in the valleys of Bolivia, where the missionaries found challenging terrain with climates similar enough to the temperate or mediterranean climates preferred by Vitis Vinifera grapes.
Ultimately, Muscat vines were trained up Molle trees, an evergreen tree native to the Andes region that produces a pink peppercorn like seed. Though this is technically unrelated to the true peppercorn, the fruit of this tree has a spicy taste, a pungent aroma and fruity flavors. In the 16th century it was uncommon to see a vineyard like the ones we think of today; perfect rows of vines trellised on systems of wires and stakes. By training the grapevines up these trees, which is what vines do in the wild, the monks and colonists were able to produce more fruit. This tree has a type of resin that acted as a fungicide, helping to prevent mildew and molds on the grapes. The vines also reached higher into the trees allowing for more airflow and further reducing risk of infection. Notes of this pink peppercorn are often found in the wines and Singanis produced from these grapes. Harvesting from these trees is difficult, so many vineyards have replaced them with modern trellising systems. The few that maintain them often find notes of pink peppercorn in their wines and Singani.
Singani at its simplest is an 80 proof, un-aged brandy distilled from the wine of Muscat of Alexandria grapes. Most Singanis go through a double distillation process in order to achieve purity in the product without stripping the spirit of its characteristic aromas. The term Singani is regulated by the Bolivian government, which defines its area of production as well as its production methods and ingredients. Law 1334 of May 4th, 1992, defines the Denomination of Origen of Singani as well as some standards for quality. These are relatively general, but they have been further defined through regulations identifying specific requirements for the varying levels of quality of Singani.
The highest designation of Singani is that of Singani de Altura, or high altitude Singani; a spirit distilled from wine of 100% Muscat of Alexandria grown in altitudes of no less than 1,600 meters (5,250 feet), in specific regions as defined by tradition and law. It also states that the spirit must be fermented, distilled, aged and bottled in the same region in which the fruit was grown. Other designations of lower quality exist, including Singani, Singani de Primera, and Singani de Segunda. Singani de Primera and Singani de Segunda may be made from the pomace left over from winemaking. These Singanis can be more aggressive in style and are more like rustic Italian grappa or French marc. Singani de Altura is the only quality level that is exported outside of Bolivia. This is the purest representation of the tradition of Singani, capturing the essence of high altitude Muscat of Alexandria grapes distilled at high altitude.
Most Singanis were traditionally distilled in what is called a Falca. The Falca is a still that is much simpler than the alambique or the column still. The Falca is simply an oven built underneath a vessel or pot, which receives the Muscat wine. Here a fire is set underneath the pot and the alcohol begins to evaporate, being directed through a straight tube or arm that passes through a water tank to cool and condense the alcohol into a liquid. This type of still produces a much simpler, less purified and more intense distillation. Many modern producers have since moved to using higher quality copper alambique stills, but many small artisinal producers still use Falcas that have been in their families for generations. Though the alambique produces a much cleaner and more delicate final product, some prefer the Falca for its ability to concentrate and intensify the Muscat wine's aromas into a rich and powerful Singani.
The Importance of High Altitude
Law 1334 specifically dictates both the altitude production and of the vineyards because altitude helps create the unique personality of Singani. At higher altitudes a thinner atmosphere filters less of the ultraviolet (UV) rays, causing more to reach the grapevines. UV ray exposure is higher at latitudes closer to the equator, and Bolivia, located entirely in tropical latitudes close to the equator, receives more UV rays than other traditional growing regions. Much like UV rays damage human skin and eyes, they are harmful to the leaves and fruit of the grapevine. Vines must protect themselves in order to survive, which has certain effects on the fruit produced. The vine produces higher concentrations of anti-oxidants, which protect the genetic information in the grape seeds. High altitude vines can produce grapes with antioxidant levels up to ten times the amount of grapes grown at sea level. Grapes at this altitude tend to grow thicker skins as a reaction to the intense sun exposure, creating wines with deeper colors and higher levels of tannins. This is another reason why the relatively thick-skinned Muscat of Alexandria has traditionally grown well in the high altitude valleys of Bolivia.
The lower atmospheric pressure of high altitude has a pronounced effect on distillation as well. At 1,600 meters above sea level, the minimum elevation defined by law for Singani Production, the boiling point of ethanol is almost 5ºC (9ºF) lower than at sea level. At higher altitudes, such as in the Cinti Valley, the original home of Singani, the boiling point is lowered by about 8ºC (14ºF). This means that a distiller has to apply less heat to the wine in order to distill the alcohol, which helps to maintain delicate aromatic compounds while separating unwanted congeners (substances produced by fermentation other than ethanol). This greatly contributes to the final character of Singani: an intensely aromatic, fruity and delicately floral spirit.
From Wine to Singani
The name Singani is thought to originate from the name of a small pueblo, Sinkani, located in the province of Nor Lípez in the department of Potosí, where some of the first grapevines were planted by the missionaries. Life in the colonies in the Andes highlands was be harsh: intense temperatures swings, brutal high altitude sun, lower levels of oxygen and extremely cold nights made life challenging. Many of the colonies and pueblos were also border towns with vicious indigenous tribes like the Guaraní, which meant a persistent element of danger for those living on the frontier. For the monks and colonists, Singani was a strong, warming spirit that helped take the edge off of this difficult way of life.
Distilling SIngani helped increase the efficiency of transportation from the vineyards of the Cinti Valley to the areas of high demand, namely Potosí and Sucre (both cities made wealthy by mining). The journey from the valley to these towns was arduous, stretching 200-300 kilometers through valleys, canyons and mountain terrain that was difficult to navigate on foot. The only method of transportation in the 16th century that was suitable for this trek was donkey, and methods for carrying liquids were primitive. Initially clay pots or bags made of animal skins and intestines carried the wine, eventually evolving into wooden barrels. By converting the Muscat wine into Singani, the wineries effectively concentrated the wine, increasing the value of the product and reducing the volume to be carried. A higher alcohol spirit like SIngani was also less likely to spoil or be damaged in transport. This change made every trip to Potosí and the mining regions more profitable and helped to build the economy of the Cinti Valley.
The oldest and most well known Singani producer is San Pedro, located near the town of Camargo, in the Cinti Valley. Their vineyards were first planted about 500 years ago under the name San Pedro Mártir. This distillery has been producing Singani continuously for roughly 470 years, making it one of the oldest in the americas, and possibly the world. For much of the history of Bolivia, San Pedro was known as the highest quality producer, but in the last few decades the distillery has experienced economic challenges and most of its business has been taken by competing brands, such as Singani Casa Real, Singani Rujero, Singani Los Parrales and many small artisanal producers.
The History of Mining and Singani
In the 16th century the Spanish discovered massive deposits of silver ore inside a mountain located in the Andes highlands. The natives that lived in this region called the mountain Sumaq Urqu, which translates as Beautiful Mountain. Once the Spanish identified the wealth hidden inside, they took inspiration from this name, but called it Cerro Rico, or Mountain of Riches, focusing on the wealth inside rather than its beauty. In 1545 the city of Potosí was founded at the base of Cerro Rico, and eventually grew to be the largest city in South America at the time reaching nearly 200,000 residents. The Spanish King proclaimed himself the Successor of the Incan Emperor, and required that the indigenous people of this region work in the mines to feed the Spanish hunger for silver.
The Incan Empire used a system of mandatory public labor, called Mit’a, which required that citizens contribute a certain number of days each year to build public projects like roads or buildings, or to contribute through agricultural production. The Spanish King used his new position as successor to intensify this system and force the indigenous population to work in the mines. These workers were not the only laborers in the mine. The mines ran on contract labor and free wager earners, with only 1 out of 10 laborers coming from the Mit’a system. This, however, acted as an indirect subsidy for private-sector entrepreneurs, who operated the mines and paid the Spanish Crown taxes on the profits. Potosí was one of the wealthiest cities in the world during this boom, with much of the wealth being diverted to the Spanish Empire.
The incredible wealth in this area, led to a demand for luxury products such as wine and spirits. It was difficult and extremely expensive to import products from Europe, therefore this large demand created a boom for the wine industry in the Cinti Valley. As the population grew, more and more wine and Singani was being sent to Potosí. Singani and coca were consumed by many of the miners to help deal with the dangerous work and difficult lifestyle. Many of the miners would give offerings to El Tío, a spirit believed to be the lord of the underworld, often depicted as a devil-like creature. Miners would typically have a statue of El Tío in the mines and would give coca, cigars and Singani in order to ask for protection in the mines. The demand from the mines and the mining regions helped to grow wine and Singani production outside of the Cinti Valley, especially in Tarija, where the bulk of Singani is made today.
Singani is a spirit that can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks or in cocktails. Depending on the quality of the spirit, the best way to enjoy intense character of Singani is simply by drinking it chilled or over ice. Double and Triple distilled examples of Singani de Altura are excellent for enjoying in this manner. Most Singani is consumed in the form of mixed drinks. The most famous Singani cocktail is the Chufly (aka Chuflay, Shoofly): a mixture of Singani and ginger ale served over ice and garnished with a lime. This mixture is sweet and refreshing, making it the perfect cocktail for a warm day, and its simple recipe means anyone can make it at home or at a party. This cocktail can be spiced up a bit by substituting ginger beer for ginger ale, bringing a stronger ginger profile to match the intense aroma of Singani. Other simple and refreshing long drinks include the Singani Collins, Singani and Tonic, Singani and soda. Singani can also be mixed with just about any fruit juice, with some favorites including passionfruit, orange, mango, grapefruit, cranberry, and most any tropical fruit. Anywhere Gin or Vodka fit in a cocktail Singani can be a great alternative.
International bartenders are becoming familiar with Singani as the spirit has makes its way outside of Bolivia. Singani’s strength lies in its smooth body and intense aromatic character; it blends well with a variety of spirits, mixers, liqueurs and bitters while still maintaining its presence in a cocktail. Singani can play the role of the lead spirit in a variety of classic drinks like the Negroni (replacing the gin), the Old Fashioned (replacing the bourbon) or a Sidecar (replacing the brandy). Many bartenders across the country have been experimenting with Singani, creating an almost unlimited variety of cocktails. To focus on the fruity character, one can focus on mixing with fresh juices. To focus on the floral, stirred cocktails with vermouths and floral bitters or liqueurs can be utilized. To pull out some herbaceous qualities, stronger bitter liqueurs such as Italian Amaros (like Ramazotti or Averna) can be used. Singani can even be served warm like in a classic Bolivian Cocktail called Té con Té; a mixture of Singani, hot black tea, cinnamon, honey and lime.
Daroca, Marcela Canedo. Vinos De Bolivia: De Los VinÌEdos MaÌs Altos Del Mundo = Wines of Bolivia: from the Highest Vineyards of the World. Fundación Autapo, 2008.
Roig Justiniano, Francisco. “La Vitivinicultura En Los Valles Sudorientales De Los Andes En Bolivia Durante La Colonia Española.” Boletín: Sociedad De Estudios Geográficos e Históricos De Santa Cruz, no. 68, ser. 2013-2014, Dec. 2014, pp. 89–108. 2013-2014.
Roig, Francisco. Personal interview. 04 Apr 2018.