What happens when an environmental scientist finds damaged rice crops? In the case of Min Teo, you turn it into a sipping gin that’s so delish that you hanker to have it simply neat or on the rocks.
Made from typhoon-swept rice crops along the eastern board of Taiwan, Zhen Gin — its name in Chinese means true and genuine — ensures farmers have an avenue to recuperate potential losses, while serving as “a platform to advocate causes that’ll support socio-economic changes in sustainability,” says Teo.
Distilled in Yilan County and imagined as an “Asian rice bowl”, the vegan-certified gin has a distinctive Asian character showcasing a nose of Yunnan Osmanthus and, on the palate, notes of Bhutanese juniper and Thai coriander seeds.
A consultant who helps industries integrate or dispose waste streams in economically sustainable ways, the first-time distiller was surfing in Taiwan with childhood friend and fellow Singaporean Terence Loh (co-founder of Novena Global Lifecare), when they saw green rice fields pummelled by typhoon. Knowing the environmental harm of discarding the crops — its decomposition releases more methane emissions than carbon dioxide — the pair had a eureka moment. “Everything clicked in our heads and two years of arduous R&D later, we have Zhen Gin,” says Teo.
Zhen Gin’s origin story is a good one. Tell us about it.
During one of our surf trips to eastern Taiwan, me, Terence Loh and a couple of our friends were tying our surfboards down amidst the howling winds, when we witnessed the destruction to acres of rolling green fields we saw just moments ago. We knew these were rice crops and that it was a devastation that the farmers won’t be able to easily recover from. On top of that, discarding the crops would result in methane emissions (30 times more detrimental than carbon dioxide in global warming potential) through microbial decompositions. Seeing the sight, and knowing its consequences, Terence looked at me and said, “Why don’t we try to do something with these rice crops?” It was a eureka moment.
You’ll continually source damaged crops?
In Taiwan, a representative from the co-op regulates the trade of rice and has priority over the healthy rice. He will not take in rice crops affected by typhoon, which are considered “damaged”. That is our opportunity to purchase from the farmers directly and let them recuperate from their potential losses. Getting to the farmers took a lot of leg work and we relied a lot on connections to let them know Zhen Gin wanted to purchase their damaged crops. When there are no typhoons (as with the last couple of months), we supplement with rice that we purchase from the co-op. But when a typhoon strikes, we, of course, gather as much affected crops as we can.
So Zhen Gin is a social enterprise then.
It was never about “making money”. We didn’t even know if it could turn a profit. As surfers, we’re in tune with how climate change is affecting nature. We’re seeing less fishes in the ocean, monsoon seasons are becoming unpredictable and even the wind directions are changing. We feel the effects directly. This is why we were adamant about the climate-positive production of Zhen Gin, and it being a platform to advocate causes that’ll support socio-economic changes in sustainability. On top of Zhen Gin being Vegan-certified by BeVeg (no animals or animal by-products were used in its production), we also want to preserve culture (aboriginal traditions, traditional farming cultures and so on). In business terms, you could say the ROI we’re looking at is how much change we can instil in society.
Would you say brand philosophy and production is also informed by your work as an environmental scientist?
After so many years, I don’t even actively think of myself as an “environmental scientist”. It has just become a way of life for me to live authentically and naturally. I say the same for Terence. We do it without thinking — like the morally right things to do, such as not wasting rice, minimising use of plastics and picking up rubbish we come across as we paddle or surf, for example.
As a scientist, you must be detailed and analytical. Is this useful for the technical aspects of distillation?
Those traits have definitely helped a lot. You know how people always joke about how the things we learned in school were never used? Well, Zhen Gin basically came out of my textbooks. The basic chemistry concepts are all there. It’s funny because I didn’t even want to go to school in the first place.
Dominant botanicals include Bhutanese juniper, Thai coriander seeds, Yunnan osmanthus. What did you want to evoke with your gin?
We tried everything we could get our hands on — laksa leaf, calamansi and so on. We did it systematically, but it was an entirely trial-and-error process. We didn’t want to just follow the standards that western gins have set. We wanted to create a sort of “Asian rice bowl” with our base spirit being made from rice and having a distinctive rice flavour. In fact, our upcoming seasonal release Zhen Yi will feature maqaw, a Taiwanese mountain pepper harvested by aborigines. The idea was to showcase the treasure trove of botanicals we have in our backyard, and its potential in gin and, subsequently, international gastronomy.
Your favourite way of enjoying the gin?
Chilled, on its own. Especially in this weather. It’s got a distinctive and delicate taste that’s a waste to be overwhelmed by tonic water. It’s just the way I enjoy it. Though I would love to see it as part of a cocktail. With Zhen Gin’s unique profile, I would love to see what creativity the bar community can inject into it.
Zhen Gin retails online at zhengin.com. From now till 30 June 2020, up to 40 percent of all bottle proceeds go to the #BarTabSG Relief Fund, an initiative started by the brand to provide critical financial support to Singapore based-bartenders during these unprecedented times.