Cassia cinnamon grains, Sarawak peppers, kaffir limes — these ingredients might sound exotic and far out of reach for anyone else in the world, but for Singaporeans keenly acquainted with these tropical flavours, these spices help form familiar, comforting tastes.
It’s exactly that sense of familiarity and nostalgia that the new Singapore Distillery wants to tap on. With a distillery based in Ang Mo Kio that houses a gargantuan 500-litre copper still (made in the style of distilleries of yore), the homegrown label wants to marry beloved local flavours with time-honed gin-making traditions.
“Our six gins aren’t just flavoured versions of a base gin,” enthuses head distiller Ashwin Sekaran, who began his gin-making journey after a serendipitous encounter in London three years ago. “Each of them has its own individual recipe and distillation method — so they’re really six standalone gins.”
Sekaran talks about what makes Singapore Distillery stand out from the city’s burgeoning craft spirits scene, and his stance on durian and chin chow-flavoured gin.
What was your eureka moment for Singapore Distillery?
I was having a holiday in London with my family in August 2017, and I had recently gotten into drinking gin as my main spirit but hadn’t really tried any craft gin before that. We went to a pub and I asked for a gin and tonic — but I had never heard of those brands before.
Later that night, I was Googling craft gin and found out there was a craft distilling expo happening in London right there and then. I got tickets to go, expecting it to be full of gins and other craft things — but it turned out it was an industry expo, and I had my mind blown by this industry that I hadn’t even known existed.
Later, I went for a distillery tour in London, and a comment by the head distiller became the eureka moment for me.
While explaining the botanicals in gin, he said that it was important to have expensive and hard-to-find spices and herbs in gin, as they gave the basis of good gin. Spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves…these were everyday ingredients in food we had in Singapore.
That’s when I realised I wanted to make gin that really showcased the flavours of Asia — especially since Singapore didn’t have any distilleries at the time.
Singapore’s craft spirits scene has been gaining momentum in recent times. What would you say makes Singapore Distillery special?
Our six gins aren’t just flavoured versions of a base gin. Each of them has its own individual recipe and distillation method — so they’re really six standalone gins. This is very different from what a lot of other distilleries do, where they just add new things to a base recipe.
I feel you really have to make gins this way, as our Asian botanicals tend to be unique and strong in flavour — so you really need to build a gin from scratch in order to get everything to work.
Where do you get the ingredients for Singapore Distillery’s gins?
We get our juniper berries from Eastern Europe, as that’s where the best juniper comes from. They’re the size of canned peas and super juicy and resinous, instead of the tiny, dried stuff you normally get in supermarkets.
The rest of our botanicals I source from markets here in Singapore, particularly from Pasir Panjang, since everything except the juniper can be sourced from Asia.
Your journey with Singapore Distillery actually began in 2017. How did you spend the last three years leading up to your eventual launch?
I took two apprenticeships, one with a master gin distiller in the UK and one with a master whisky and gin distiller in Australia. I did those while also getting a distilling qualification from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in the UK and also one from the University of Adelaide in Spirit Production.
The second thing that took three years was just getting the distillery and brand of Singapore Distillery up and away, from approvals for the distillery and getting all the licenses together to getting the bottle design and labels all sorted out.
The third thing was spending all this time finalizing and doing hundreds of test batches of our six gins to really make sure that they were the best they could be.
Recently, you asked your followers on Instagram to suggest some new flavours for Singapore Distillery to try in the future (some of the wilder ones include durian and chin chow). Are you planning to make these a reality? What else do you have in the pipeline for 2021 and beyond?
I looked at all the suggestions we got and actually got a few ideas from the less extreme ones. There are a few suggestions that can’t be made into anything tasty, but I do plan on working with some ideas.
Right now we’ve got a botanical vodka and two gins in the works that I’m hoping to release once they’ve passed my taste tests — so stay tuned.