First poured a century ago, the Singapore Sling may be our nation’s calling card across the globe. But up until recently, the gin-based punch would have been stirred or shaken without any Singaporean gin in it — the island nation simply didn’t produce any.
“It was such a shame that all the bars around the world were using a foreign gin as the base for the Singapore sling,” observes Jamie Koh, the entrepreneur who first came onto the F&B scene in 2010 with the opening of Chupitos Shots Bar. “So I wanted to create a gin that is made specially for our tropical climate, using ingredients that represented Singapore as a whole.
That goal was set in 2012, before the international “ginaissance” and distillery boom swept through the country, inspiring a newfound culture of gin appreciation among tipplers. (You’ll remember that specialist gin bar Cin Cin only opened in 2016, while Atlas Bar, said to stock the world’s largest collection of gin, launched a year later.)
In between running shooters bar Chupitos and her newer venture The Beast Southern Kitchen + Bourbon Bar, a spot for buttermilk fried chicken and barrel-aged bourbon, Koh enrolled herself at an American distilling school and took on apprenticeships at distilleries in the US, UK and in Germany. She tells us, “I basically pleaded with distilleries to take me in”.
It was in Germany’s Black Forest that Koh met Frank, a farmer and distiller whose philosophy and approach to craft aligned with her own. “And so we went back to him every year to learn and train under him. Naturally, when it came to developing the recipe for our first gin, we went back to him as well.”
“What I did was go to the wet markets and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) shops and bought everything I could lay my hands on from chrysanthemum and goji berries to pomelo and mangosteen,” Koh recalls. “I don’t know how I even made it through customs, but I did, and I brought it all to Frank, who naturally didn’t know what any of these ingredients were!”
“He had me distill everything one by one. And then it was a matter of us figuring out which ingredients would create the flavour profile that I was after — I knew it had to be tropical and refreshing, something that you can drink on a hot day, and which represented us,” says Koh.
The result: Brass Lion Distillery’s debut spirit, fittingly christened the Singapore Dry Gin, a summer concoction of 22 botanicals that is lightly floral, lightly spiced and deliciously zesty.
“That was the easy part,” Koh says of finalising the recipe in 2015. Obtaining the necessary licenses and permits to open Singapore’s first standalone micro-distillery specialising in premium, small-batch craft spirits took a further two and a half years.
“Entrepreneurs get very excited by ideas, and for a lot of them, it’s the follow through that poses a challenge,” shares the 35-year-old. “I’d say I’m quite tenacious because otherwise I don’t think we would have opened the distillery. With the roadblocks and challenges, it did take six years to materialise.”
When Brass Lion Distillery opened its doors at Alexandra Terrace in Pasir Panjang in 2018, public engagement was front and centre. Besides a working micro-distillery (it’s handcrafted copper still named “Nala” is so famous that people address emails to her) and backyard herb garden, the venue also housed a cocktail bar and gin school.
“When I created Brass Lion, I didn’t want to manufacture the product in some faraway factory. I really wanted to create a brand home where people can come for our distillery tours, see how the gin is made, or come sit at the bar and sample the spirits. It’s important to me to offer the full experience, and we’re the only ones [in Singapore] to do it.”
Botanicals are also sourced within a five kilometres radius: At the nearby Pasir Panjang wet market, the TCM shop “just around the corner”, and from their own backyard herb garden. “It’s great when we need to do a distillation run, and we just go into the garden and get it fresh. It’s organic as well,” says Koh.
Two new gins have since been added to the product line: Butterfly Pea Gin, a blend of Singapore Dry Gin with lavender and butterfly pea flower, a staple in Peranakan cuisine; and more lately, the full-bodied and spiced Pahit Pink Gin, which marks a revival of Gin Pahit (“bitters” in Malay), the gin and bitters mix favoured by the British Royal Navy as a remedy for sea sickness in colonial Malaya.
Up next is the launch of limited edition gins for Christmas and New Year’s; an ex-bourbon barrel aged gin; and a navy-strength gin bottled at 58% ABV.
What’s left is world domination.
“I always say I want to see Brass Lion take over the world; When I’m travelling, I want to see it behind the bar in every country I visit,” shares Koh. “But baby steps as well. I don’t see the point in saying we’re in 40 countries, which can be easily achieved, but then you don’t really have much [product] movement.”
“We’re a Singaporean brand. That’s why we spent our first two years really brand building and hoping that Singaporeans can understand the brand. I think local acceptance is very important before going overseas,” she shares.
Brass Lion hasn’t even played all its cards yet. Experiments at the distillery haven’t been limited to just gin. Flavoured vodka and rum have also been trialed while at least one barrel of single malt whisky has been laid down to mature. Of the latter, Koh reveals, “we taste it every six months and the flavours are developing very well.”
Consider this story one that’s only just begun.