For Jamie Koh, it wasn't enough to have two successful food and beverage concepts (Chupitos Shot Bar and The Beast - both arguably ahead of their time) to her name, she decided to "jump a level up in the supply chain" and set up Singapore's first standalone spirits distillery.
Located at Alexandra Terrace, the microdistillery currently produces three gin expressions (Singapore Dry Gin, Butterfly Pea Gin, and Pink Pahit Gin). It plans to release more variations soon, and eventually rum and whisky "in the next year or two".
The multifunctional 370 sq m space, a first in Singapore, ties in with all of Jamie's passions: to educate, to experiment, and to create. Kitted out with a 150-litre copper still (nicknamed Nala) that she's pre-emptively customised for rum and whisky as well, the space also includes a herb garden and tasting room, and allows for distillery tours and gin-making workshops.
"It started with wanting to open a microdistillery because we don't have a Singapore craft spirit to call our own. For me, it's always about creating unique concepts. Brass Lion Distillery, with its variety of experiences, offers that to the public, which was a big motivation for me," says Jamie. "I wanted the space to be educational, not just to show a product on a shelf - I want people to see the care and craft that goes into every bottle."
Care is certainly reflected in the subtly floral Dry Gin, fast becoming a favourite with our island's bartenders. Made with 22 botanicals, it's a gin in which every ingredient (pomelo peel, torch ginger, chrysanthemum flower, kaffir lime leaf) save for the juniper berries from Macedonia, is obtained locally from wet markets and traditional Chinese medicine stores. Torch ginger flower (also known as the rojak flower) was added not just for its cultural symbolism (Singapore as a multi-ethnic "rojak nation") but for what it adds to the mix: "a subtle spice note that gives the gin a particular warmth."
To create the flavour profile, Jamie experimented for years, attributing a part of her inspiration to the Singapore Sling. "The typical gin profile used in the Sling is very dry and juniper-forward, which works well in cold climates. We wanted to create a tropical gin - floral, citrus and refreshing - something you could have several rounds of in our humid weather," she explains.
The formula, crafted over numerous trips to distilleries in South Carolina and Germany's Black Forest, took time to get right. "The product is the most important thing; we had to make sure it could stand its ground," she shares. "It took a long time to learn about the process, to develop the recipe, bring it back to let people try it, get market feedback, and go back to tweak the recipe. Then we had to figure out the licensing - gin is actually classified as a food, so no one knew what to do with us. We had to work closely with 15 government organisations to explain what we needed to do."
It's a dream that's been six years in the making, and Jamie has bet big on the distillery, pumping in her own funds ("just shy of $2 million") to bring it to life, together with a minority share partner. "It is a big risk. An investor would have helped to diversify the risk but we wanted to launch quickly, and getting investors in at an early stage might have complicated things unnecessarily."
So what does success look like for her? "I want to build a well-known cross-spirits brand, to be known beyond Singapore, regionally and globally. If you think of what Tiger Beer is, we kind of want to be that, but for spirits."
There's now a new queen of the jungle.
This article was first published in Her World Online.