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Jamie Koh - Brass Lion Gin

Written by Gin Foundry

It seems a little crazy that Singapore, home of the Sling and filled with fine-drinking expats, hasn’t had its very own gin until just now. Brass Lion Distillery founder Jamie Koh was also a little stunned by the revelation, and it was something that her entrepreneurial spirit sought to remedy. She’s making her international debut at Junipalooza, so we thought we’d vie you the chance to whet your whistles ahead of trying the gin for the first time…

Brass Lion all started as an idea in 2012 and took 6 years to come to fruition, do you remember what made you start thinking about creating a distillery yourself?

I own two other restaurants/ bars in Singapore and through my establishments, I saw that there was an increasing interest in craft spirits. At the same time, I started to wonder why Singapore did not have a spirit to call her own. The Singapore Sling is a classic gin-based cocktail, and I felt that it was such a shame that we were using foreign gin as a base for it. I decided to start my own distillery, creating Singaporean spirits using South-east Asian ingredients, distilled right here in Singapore.

You worked alongside several distilleries as an apprentice to learn your craft, what was that experience like?

I took a distilling course to gain the necessary knowledge on distilling, but I soon realised that I needed to gain practical experience. Over the course of a few years, I was able to apprentice at several distilleries around the world, from Charleston, South Carolina to the Black Forest of Germany, and it allowed me to gain real-world insights into the world of distilling. From large industrial distilleries to small home-grown distilleries, from whisky to gin to eu de vie, I was able to experience it all.

You talk about it being against all odds. For readers unfamiliar with the Singapore market, what were some of the difficulties you had to overcome?

With Brass Lion Distillery, nothing like this had ever been done before in Singapore. I knew that I had to master the art and science of distilling before I would be able to open the distillery. I had to write to distillers all over the world, convincing them to take me on as an unpaid apprentice, in order for me to gain the necessary know-how. Less than 1% of the distillers responded, and when they did, it was to turn me down. Eventually, through personal contacts, I managed to secure the apprenticeships, allowing me to gain much needed experience.

It was also extremely challenging getting the relevant licenses to open Brass Lion Distillery, because there was no precedent and the various government agencies were not familiar with the concept. We had to work very closely with them over the course of 2.5 years in order to receive the necessary approvals.

How big is a batch for you and how long did it take for you to perfect the recipe?

We are able to get around 150 bottles per batch. As we were unable to distill in Singapore without the necessary licenses, we had to develop the recipe in Germany. I packed a suitcase of 45 native herbs and spices and worked closely with our distiller there to develop the recipe. It took over 2 years to perfect it.

“A true, Authentic Singapore dry gin” is quite a tough challenge to set oneself. What does that mean to you and how do you feel you have done in encapsulating that sense of the place in your flavour?

As a multi-cultural society, we are a mix of Chinese, Indians, Malays and Eurasians, and this is represented in our cuisine. The inspiration for the Singapore Dry Gin comes from herbs and spices that are familiar to Singaporeans. We try to source as locally as possible - from the Chinese traditional medicine shops to the local wet markets, and even our herb garden. We use ingredients not typically found in gin, such as the torch ginger flower, chrysanthemum flowers and dried pomelo and mandarin peels.

Let’s talk more about the flavour - what are the key flavour notes drinkers can expect?

Our gin is citrusy and refreshing, with floral notes, perfect for our tropical climate.

Come G&T time what’s your garnish game like? Are you a fan of adding a peel with Brass Lion or are you more of a kept it naked kind of drinker..

We are firm believers that each unique gin deserves a custom garnish to complete the perfect pour. We choose grapefruit with a fresh sprig of mint, grown right here in our herb garden, for the Butterfly Pea G&T. We add specific garnishes to each of our gins, that complement the flavours and enhance the aroma of the ingredients.

You have a Butterfly Pea Gin as well, which is infused with lavender and pea flower. For those in the UK, they are familiar with the colour changing properties of the botanical with tonic, but that’s not why you use it - there’s a much more authentic culinary reason for you no?

Traditionally used in authentic Peranakan cuisine the Butterfly Pea is used in our gin to celebrate our Peranakan heritage. We use the Butterfly pea in our cooking, for example in our local dessert, the Kueh Salat, butterfly pea is used to the rice its distinctive blue hue.

Due to the Peranakan influence, our bottle label for the Butterfly Pea features Peranakan tiles, a distinctive feature of the Peranakan community here.

On a separate note, one of the big cocktail exports, more as a concept than an actual drink on menus, is the Singapore Sling. Famous yet unknown and seldom made is a strange thing to be - do you ever feel like there’s ever going to be a revival around that drink?

The Singapore Sling definitely has its place in our history and is still a must-try for many tourists who visit Singapore. These days, many local bartenders have developed their own interpretation of this classic drink, updating it for the modern ages.

The design and branding of Brass Lion looks amazing. Was that something that was a clear vision for you or did that evolve over time?

Singapore played an important role in the spice route, facilitating the movement of spices from the East to the rest of the world. I wanted to convey that historical look and feel, updated for the modern ages. The label for our Singapore Dry was drawn by a local artist, and features our 22 botanicals and Boat Quay, an important port in the spice trade.

You host tours at the distillery now, what’s the response been like? And what next? What’s the big news upcoming for the distillery?

The response for the tours has been great. We love hosting our tour participants at the distillery and showing them our entire process of crafting our gins.

Next up, we are excited to launch Singapore’s first ever Gin School, where participants can distill their very own bottle of gin. We also plan to develop more product lines, such as a barrel-aged gin, and other kinds of spirits. Stay tuned!