In a Chinatown bar on a Tuesday afternoon, Richard Ames and his wife Simin retrieve a short, round bottle from their bag and tip out a shot of a Sichuan pepper-spiced gin. We are getting an exclusive preview of their new Singapore-based premium craft spirit brand, and bartenders and waitstaff cast a curious eye as they pass.
A few days later, Catarina Longman and husband Andreas Schneider hand over a sample-sized bottle of Maracatu cachaca, a brand they created with a family-run Brazilian distillery to produce just for Asian drinkers.
Never mind that neither of the couples have worked in the alcohol industry, the Ameses and the Schneiders are the latest entrants to a booming craft spirits scene here, which has attracted everyone from bar owners, wine producers and even stay-at-home fathers to launch businesses specialising in the import and distribution of unusual liquors in Asia.
Wine distributor Michael Back of Equatorial Wines launched Four Pillars Gin from Australia's Yarra Valley a fortnight ago. The artisanally produced gin by winemaker Cameron Mackenzie is the first in a portfolio of several other craft spirits he hopes to bring in, says Mr Back.
Other businesses were spun out of a need. Proof and Company was started two years ago as a distribution and training offshoot business to stock the shelves of cocktail bar 28 Hong Kong Street, but has grown to become one of the leading suppliers of American craft spirits here. In turn, Ernest Goh of Bitters and Love spun off an import arm, BYOB, last November with the aim of sourcing for unique spirits for his bar.
"Customers were always asking for something different, something more interesting than what they had before, and they were doing this often enough to take note," says Mr Goh, who also makes his own fruit infusions at the bar. BYOB currently supplies to six other bars and its portfolio comprises Australian whiskies from independent distilleries such as Sullivans Cove from Tasmania and Geranium Gin and Fentimans tonic water from London.
"People are tired of the usual big brands, and they like the idea of buying goods with a story to tell," observes Maracatu's Mr Schneider. This, coupled with increasingly sophisticated palates, growing disposable incomes, and a dynamic cocktail bar scene driven by experimental bartenders and bar owners, and the interest in craft spirits seem like a logical development.
"Brand-calling" is becoming a common practice among customers, who request specific alcohol brands to go with their cocktails, observes Indra Kantono, founder of cocktail bars Jigger & Pony and Sugarhall, which carries over 200 artisanal brands and over 70 boutique rums respectively.
At Bacchanalia, craft spirits make up more than 50 per cent of the bar inventory, according to bar manager Mark Graham Thomas, who chooses labels based on their unique selling point. "Their organic nature and taste counts more than whether they are well-recognised brands. Customers now want more choices, be it in terms of raw materials, production processes or taste profiles."
"It's akin to why great chefs require the finest ingredients, most of which are artisanal. Upmarket bartending requires a diverse array of spirits, and to a good bartender, the mass market spirits landscape is quite limited in terms of types of spirits, flavours and variations," notes Spencer Forhart of Proof and Company, which now represents over 40 independent distillers in the US with its portfolio of over 300 bottlings.
Though there is no regulation in Singapore over what can be called a craft spirit, they are typically recognised as alcohol produced in small batches by small-scale independent distilleries. This often implies more care, more premium ingredients - and more transparency - in their production process.
While big alcohol brands have to pool together their raw ingredients from various sources and distilleries, making them difficult to trace, "you are more likely to be able to find out where the ingredients are from, right down to the farm that produces them, and whether the processes are organic when it comes to small-scale producers," explains Howard Lo of seven-month-old Liberty Spirits, a specialist importer of American craft spirits that represents over 25 craft distilleries, including award-winning ones such as Owney's Rum, Lost Spirits and Greenhook Gin.
Even bigger players are keenly watching and partaking in the craft movement, either by spinning off small-batch brands and limited releases of their more commercial labels, or by simply buying up marketable independent distilleries.
Reyka, a brand of vodka marketed as a small-batch vodka by alcohol company William Grant and Sons, was launched in Singapore earlier this year. Only 1,000 litres of Reyka are produced in any one batch run in traditional copper stills in Iceland, according to regional marketing manager Marcus Low. Remy Cointreau's Mount Gay Rum this week also launched its Black Barrel series in Singapore, a premium selection of rum distilled in small-batches and aged in charred bourbon casks.
42 Below, a vodka once made in founder Geoff Ross's New Zealand garage, was bought by Bacardi for S$138 million a few years ago, while hipster favourite Bulleit Bourbon, started by former lawyer Tom Bulleit was acquired by Seagram and later Diageo. The latter, the world's largest alcohol company, last month broke ground on a US$115 million distilling facility in Kentucky for Bulleit and a US$2 million visitors' centre, all in a push to take the cult brand into 14 global markets this year.
With the large players muscling in and as successful, independent distillers expand their production, will the term "craft" become just a marketing ploy?
Tim Clark, the importer of Black Cow vodka, a vodka made from milk by a British farmer, points out that the "craft" label will be diluted if large organisations start slapping it onto even mass-produced items, much like the abuse of the "organic food" handle these days.
While there are camps for and against coming up with a legal definition of the term, the American Distilling Institute loosely defines craft spirits as products of an independently owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases, and where the product is physically distilled and bottled on site. An American publication, however, recently - and controversially - revealed that many of the leading cult distillers in the US actually source for their liquids from the same large distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
This then begs a further question: As small-batch alcohol producers gain more widespread appeal and ramp up production, is the idea of a successful craft distillery inherently contradictory? Tito's Handmade Vodka from the US, for instance, grew from a 16-gallon pot still in 1997 to a 26-acre operation with over 10 stills and four bottling lines that now produce over 850,000 cases a year to fuel expansion to markets such as Singapore, Thailand and New Zealand this year.
"We definitely need to make more than our initial run of 2,000 bottles to stay profitable," says Maracatu's Mr Schneider, but expansion, he says, could come in the production of other product lines such as cachaca aged in different Brazilian wood barrels.
"In the discussion of craft versus mainstream, there is always a negative connotation ascribed to the latter, but to me, becoming a mainstream product is simply a testament to the spirit's quality and taste, as well as the relatability of its brand story," says William Grant and Sons' Marcus Low. Likewise, Mount Gay's brand ambassador Miguel Smith believes that the term "craft" shouldn't be restricted by quantity, but by the consistent high quality of the product even as its output expands. "Our 300-year-old still can only produce so many bottles for each run, so by nature, all our products are craft."
Mr Lo likens the craft spirits movement to the indie music dilemma. "Before, people were really into indie bands because they were hard to discover, then Spotify came along and you can now hear them all the time. Does it make them any less independent?"
Even as industry watchers tussle over semantics, there are tangible challenges to the growth trajectory of craft spirits in Singapore. High prices - mandated by high alcohol taxes - are a key barrier to mass adoption, local distributors point out. Commercial brands of vodka would cost S$30 a bottle, while a craft vodka bottle of the same size might go for S$50 to S$80 wholesale. This price then gets revised upwards of S$80 for retail sales.
And while bars may gladly stock lesser-known craft spirits on their shelves, it is often up to the customer to specially request for them to get the product moving. "The next step is to get more bartenders to include them in their main cocktail menus," says Mr Lo.
Like craft beers, which shed their image as a premium product a few years ago and are now being stocked everywhere from supermarkets to cafes and even coffeeshops, Mr Lo also worries that consumers may get inundated with too many brands all at once as the craft spirits movement takes off. "It can be overwhelming when presented with so many brands at once, so the trick is in education, and getting consumers to spend a little more time with each one," he muses. This is also why he opened The Secret Mermaid, a "spirits-forward" bar that offers detailed tastings at the same time that he launched Liberty Spirits.
For Black Cow Vodka importers, this means taking the time to "literally walk the product from bars to restaurants" while sharing recipes and videos along the way to give the brand a personal touch, says Mr Clark.
Proof and Company's Mr Forhart agrees: "As many of the producers are small, they will most likely not be able to financially support conventional marketing efforts. This means we have to spend more time personally introducing consumers to these products, and hope that they see the same virtues in them that we do."
It's a labour-intensive way to market a product and it requires high levels of staff skill, which is expensive and difficult to find and requires time to take effect, he admits. "This is not a quick-win sort of business."
As for whether there is a big enough market in this city of 5.5 million people for more suppliers of craft spirits to enter, Equatorial Wines' Mr Back is staying positive.
Says the distributor of artisanally produced wines from the New World: "I found gaps in the wine sector in Singapore even though there are already over 300 other wine distributors here and a limited number of restaurants and bars. I imagine the spirits industry in Singapore to be not that different, as long as the interest is there and it is growing."
Made in Brazil, but just for Asia
Pop quiz: How would you pronounce cachaca? Had to Google that one?
Never mind if you did - for couple Catarina Longman and Andreas Schneider believe there's an untapped market for the Brazilian alcohol in Asia, and they've created a made-for-the-region marque of their own to satisfy that thirst. Launching in a fortnight's time is Maracatu, a premium brand of cachaca, or a distilled spirit made from fermented sugar cane juice. After living in Singapore for four years, and travelling to Brazil every year to visit Ms Longman's family, the couple started seeing the Brazilian national spirit in a new light. "It is one of the most consumed spirits in the world, but it suffers the same fate as Korean soju, in that only one per cent of the production is exported out of the country," notes Mr Schneider, a German who has a day job in the aviation industry. Ms Longman is a Brazil native who works in the Brazilian embassy here. They have a third Singapore-based business partner, also a Brazilian, who works in the finance industry.
Brazil is the world's top sugar-cane producer, and the country has over 5,000 brands of cachaca that produce around 1.5 billion litres of the spirit a year - making it the fourth most-produced distilled liquor in the world behind China's baijiu, Russian vodka and Korea's soju. It is commonly used in cocktails such as caipirinhas, a Western bar staple, though the spirit is more popularly drunk straight in Brazil. Despite its growing popularity among well-travelled drinkers and adventurous bartenders, however, premium versions of the spirit were hard to find in Singapore, says Ms Longman.
"The really artisanal brands would come in straw bottles or have names that are difficult for non-speakers of Portuguese to pronounce. They were never made for export in mind," she explains. "But branding in Asia is so crucial that we realise it's important to match the premium quality of our product with a packaging and brand that reflected that."
Hence, they worked with local design agency Manic to come up with clean, attractive - and gold-dusted - labels for the brand, which they hope to distribute across Asia eventually. Besides its embodiment of Brazilian heritage - the maracatu is a samba-like folk dance traditionally performed during Carnival in Ms Longman's hometown of Pernambuco - the name Maracatu was chosen for its simple syllable structure that would make it easier for speakers of Asian languages to pronounce. The cachaca, meanwhile, is fermented with naturally produced local yeast and distilled in small batches through the traditional copper-pot still method by a boutique, family-run distillery in Minas Gerais, a region known for its artisan cachaca distillery. The couple went into partnership with this distillery after a month of travelling and visiting producers around the country last summer because it also owns its own farm of organically grown sugar canes that are used for distillation.
Only the "heart" of the distillate, or its most premium, purest liquids, is collected and the spirit is rested for six months in Brazilian jequitiba wood barrels before bottling, with no additional flavouring such as sugars or caramel added, Mr Schneider assures. While most cachacas typically contain between 38 per cent and 48 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV), the decision to bottle their cachaca at 38 per cent ABV was made with Asian drinkers in mind. "It's much smoother at a lower ABV, and for people who have never tried cachaca before, it seems much less intimidating," says Ms Longman.
Their initial run of 2,000 bottles will arrive in Singapore in two weeks. If response picks up, the couple plan to introduce further editions of cachacas aged in different types of indigenous Brazilian wood, says Ms Longman. "Promoting the spirit is in a way, our way of also promoting Brazil."
Boutique craft dream
Paper Lantern Distillery
A Singapore-based distillery producing made-in-Singapore spirits with local flavours? Locavore tipplers rejoice, that pipe dream may not be as distant as you think.
Next month, American couple Richard and Simin Kayhan Ames will debut a range of spirits from Paper Lantern, a boutique craft brand that produces premium luxury liquors and liqueurs for sale throughout South-east Asia.
In their portfolio are three flavours for now: a gin spiced with Sichuan pepper, a passionfruit vodka and a Mandarin liqueur. The Mandarin liqueur has a fresh fruity flavour on the nose, an attractive amber hue and a robust sweetness while the gin is slightly savoury on the entry that peters out to leave a subtle, tongue-numbing finish. The passionfruit vodka - inspired by Mrs Ames's favourite cocktail at bespoke watering hole Bar Stories - is sweet, perfumey and packs all the flavour of the tropical fruit, without the seeds.
"What struck us when we first moved to Singapore was the abundance of flavour profiles you get everywhere, from the tropical fruits in a wet market to all the different types of spices," notes Mrs Ames, who has a day job in financial planning and analysis. Mr Ames has an operations role in a software company.
Both are natives of places with "strong alcohol connections" - Mrs Ames hails from Turkey, a country known for its fruit wine; and Mr Ames is from Boston, a breeding ground for independent beer breweries. The couple have been active home beer brewers for over a decade.
Motivated by Singapore's "conducive environment for entrepreneurship", they started thinking about turning their passion into a business when they moved here two years ago. On why they didn't start a beer company instead, Mr Ames explains that keeping the beers cool for export regionally would be a logistical challenge. Spirits, on the other hand, have longer shelf lives and can be transported and stored at room temperature.
Paper Lantern's three spirits are currently produced in consultation with a veteran Australian master distiller based in New South Wales for now, but here's the really exciting news: the Ameses hope to eventually bring the production to Singapore or South-east Asia with the right investors.
They estimate a full-fledged distillery would cost between S$1million and S$1.5million to set up here, citing the costs of importing a custom-made still, setting up a stable water source and waste management system, and power bills. The distilling, fermenting or manufacture of intoxicating liquors requires an Excise Factory licence from the Singapore Customs, which costs S$28,000 a year. To bottle, blend, compound or vary intoxicating liquors, on the other hand, requires a S$7,600 licence under the Customs Act.
BT Weekend understands that Far East Distillers is the only local liquor distillery so far. The 30-year-old company produces an entry-level range of four liquors - dry gin, vodka, rum and Scotch whisky - under the Island brand. Bottles retail from S$39 and upwards mainly in pubs and nightclubs.
The Ameses, on the other hand, are starting with a conservative limited release of 750 bottles - or 250 of each flavour - for now, which they plan to release through cocktail bars and high-end restaurants initially.
"With small-batch production, we can be more experimental," says Mrs Ames, who made three to four trips to Australia since the beginning of the year to oversee the production.
"We wanted to start small and get the news out first, because nobody will fork out cash to invest in something they've never tasted before," says Mr Ames. "You have to drink it, smell it, laugh over a joke with friends while knocking back a glass - that's what liquor is about."
Craft vodka made from cow's milk
Black Cow Vodka
It's true: you can make spirits from just about anything. Even cow's milk.
A farmer in south-west England has figured out how to turn pure cow's milk into vodka, and the artisanal spirit that has raised eyebrows in hipster and foodie circles across England is now available in Singapore - the only place to stock it outside of the UK.
A fifth-generation cow farmer whose family also produces the award-winning Barber's 1833 cheese, Black Cow Vodka's Jason Barber started producing the curious liquid after learning about the Tuva, a nomadic Mongolian tribe who have been distilling vodka made from fermented mares' milk for centuries.
After three years of research and 18 months of licensing applications, their first bottle hit the shelves in 2012. The small-batch vodka brand made headlines for its quirky nature, and became a fast favourite among celebrities such as Daniel Craig and top British chefs Mark Hix and Heston Blumenthal. It is now served in top bars and retailed in department stores such as Fortnum and Mason and Selfridges in London.
How is it all done? Mr Barber is famously coy about exact details, but the process can be briefly summed up as such: cow's milk from Mr Barber's 250-strong herd in West Dorset is first separated into curds and whey. The curds are used in cheese-making while the whey is fermented into a beer using a special yeast that converts the milk sugar into alcohol. This "milk beer" is then distilled, triple filtered and finished before being hand-bottled in batches of 3,000 each time.
The result is a clear, crisp vodka with a smooth, slightly creamy finish. Besides the vodka, Mr Barber and business partner Paul Archard - better known as Archie - also make a 200g truckle of wax-encased cheddar cheese made from the same milk that goes into the vodka. Pair the two and the crumbly, rich flavour of the cheese further intensifies the creaminess of the vodka.
While rare, Black Cow vodka isn't the only vodka made from milk for the global market. A brand called Vermont White Vodka was started as early as 2008 and Milk Money Vodka from New Zealand was also launched in the US earlier this January.
In Singapore, however, Black Cow vodka is the only product of its kind and is currently stocked in over 10 bars and restaurants in Singapore such as the Tippling Club, Bacchanalia, Jekyll and Hyde and House of Dandy, according to Singapore-based Briton Tim Clark of boutique import company Eastwind Imports, which has exclusive imports and distribution rights for both the brand's vodka and cheese here.
"It was very serendipitous, it wasn't something we'd planned for a long time, it just happened," says Mr Clark of the decision to bring the curious liquid to Singapore earlier this year. While back in the UK for a family holiday in Dorset last summer, he noticed the vodka sold everywhere from delis to village stores. Surprised that the farmer lived "just two valleys away" from Mr Clark's family farmstead, they rang the farmer up, "got on really well" and the idea of bringing the vodka to Singapore was soon mooted.
"Coming from a farming background, I've always been interested in finding good quality food and drink," says the stay-at-home father. His three other British business partners work in the insurance and logistics industries here. "We're able to look after the product every step of the way, from the producer to the end-consumer in Singapore. We're not just one part of the food chain."
"When we returned to England recently, we even had the farmer over for a barbecue. How many distributors can say they do that?"
Black Cow cheddar retails for about $22.90 while a 70cl bottle of Black Cow vodka starts from $105. Available from various bars and online from www.thebarbiegirls.com
This article was first published on Sep 6, 2014.
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