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Raise a Glass

The story of Jamie Koh and how she set up Brass Lion Distillery is definitely something worth toasting to.

By W Tan | 15 April, 2020 | #thursdaytipples, Boozy, Drink
2020-04-15 20:47:23 2020-04-15 20:47:23

For many of us, an extended overseas sojourn often results in some form of self-actualisation. For entrepreneur Jamie Koh, her travels culminated in ginspiration: coming home after a year of travelling abroad made her realise that while many countries had a unique spirit to call their own, Singapore did not. Eager to plug that gap in the market, the gin-aficionado set out to create a spirit representative of Singapore’s colourful culture.

In late 2018, her efforts finally gave birth to Brass Lion Distillery, Singapore’s very own full-fledged micro-distillery.

Jamie Koh, founder of Brass Lion Distillery
Jamie Koh, founder of Brass Lion Distillery

Fighting Spirit

No stranger to starting new concepts, Jamie is also the founder of Chupitos Shots Bar (a Mexican shooters bar at Clarke Quay), as well as The Beast Southern Kitchen + Bourbon Bar – both firsts of their kind when launched. Given the success of both ventures, one would have thought that Jamie’s journey to getting Brass Lion Distillery off the ground would be a smooth-sailing one. But it wasn’t.

“It was definitely a lot harder,” muses Jamie. “When I first broached the topic of setting up a distillery to government agencies, they had no idea what a distillery was and did not know who to refer me to. It was pretty much a wild goose chase. Without a rulebook, it also made the entire process a lot longer as the authorities needed a long time to ascertain what could and could not be done.”

Despite the lack of precedence, Jamie was determined to see through her distillery concept as envisioned. “Opening a distillery is challenging in itself, because you’re dealing with alcohol. Plus we didn’t just want to be a distillery; we wanted to have a commercial space where people could visit, so that added a layer of complexity in terms of licensing. [Thankfully] we managed to pull through.”

And pull through they did. The Brass Lion Distillery we see today on Alexandra Terrace is not just a working distillery; it is also an interactive and experiential space for both consumers and industry professionals alike. Here, visitors can go on distillery tours to understand how gin is made, learn about some of the botanicals used at the Herb Garden, partake in tasting flights at the Tasting Room, and even try their hand at crafting their own bottle of gin at the Gin School. Thoroughly engaging and immersive, these guided experiences are designed to engage guests and make them feel like a part of Brass Lion’s story.

Tasting bar
Tasting bar

A Tale of Two Countries

To date, Brass Lion Distillery has three products to its name: the multi award-winning Singapore Dry Gin, the beautiful blue-hued Butterfly Pea Gin, and the latest-launched Pahit Pink Gin. Formulated with Asian herbs and spices, all three spirits retain their classic character, but with a distinctively Singaporean twist.

Developing the recipes took years of experimentation, recalls Jamie. To start, she wanted a more hands-on experience with distilling. From the United States to the United Kingdom, she visited multiple distilleries of varying sizes and styles to learn more about the gin-making process. It was in Germany, through referrals, that she came to know their master distiller Frank.

“Distilling really is a way of life for the Germans, and as something that is so ingrained and entrenched in their lifestyles, I really respect Frank for the way he does things. He insists on doing things the proper way, such as crushing the juniper berries and peeling the citrus fruits by hand, all of which we have continued doing here at Brass Lion. It really does make a difference to the product,” explains Jamie.

The Singapore Dry Gin
The Singapore Dry Gin

Then came time for recipe development. While crafting their very first product, the Singapore Dry Gin, Jamie and her team weren’t yet allowed to distil locally, so she flew to Germany with a whole bag of local herbs and spices and developed the recipe there with Frank. Unfamiliar with all the flavours, Frank insisted on the team distilling and tasting each botanical one by one. “From there we narrowed down which ingredients would blend well together to create the flavour profile I wanted. With each prototype, I would then bring it back to Singapore and [based on] feedback gathered, return to Germany to continue tweaking the ratio of ingredients,” Jamie explains.

Their efforts paid off in their final product – a zesty, lightly-spiced spirit that blends classic juniper berries with Asian aromatics, including lemongrass, pomelo, kaffir lime and torch ginger flower. Citrus and floral on the nose, the gin is smooth, vibrant, and finishes off with a sweet, slightly earthy note from chrysanthemum flowers.

With the other two gins, Jamie knew she wanted drastically different flavour profiles to cater to drinkers of different palates. She bumped up the floral notes with the Butterfly Pea Gin, which pairs butterfly pea with lavender for a harmonious concoction that tastes “like the beginnings of spring.” The Pahit Pink Gin, on the other hand, is Jamie’s nod to pink gin, first popularised by the British Royal Navy as a remedy for seasickness in colonial Malaya. A mix of the Singapore Dry Gin with house-made bitters, the Pahit Pink Gin is full-bodied and redolent with spices such as cinnamon, orange peels and cloves, bringing to mind warm and fuzzy memories of holidays.

Crafting cocktails using Brass Lion gins
Crafting cocktails using Brass Lion gins

Leading the Pack

In just slightly over a year, Brass Lion Distillery has gained a following for their true-blue local spirits, made in Singapore by Singaporeans. Though they may not have been the makers of the first made-in-Singapore gin – that honour goes to Tanglin Gin, which opened a wee month earlier – they remain Singapore’s only homegrown experiential micro-distillery with a bar.

Despite increasing competition in the industry, Jamie remains unfazed. “For us, we focus on doing our own thing, telling our own story, and we hope that’s compelling enough to gain the brand a following. To be honest, I really don’t think about competition. I know that doesn’t sound very business-savvy, because you should always know your competitors and what they’re doing, but I believe that if you know what you are doing and you do it well, good things will naturally follow.”

Business savvy or not, Jamie’s personal mantra has consistently proven that she’s on the right track. Take Chupitos for instance – before its launch, businesses in Clarke Quay were mostly run by middle-aged men, and as a young female entrepreneur, Jamie faced disparaging neighbours who thought her establishment would not survive. Fast forward to 2020, Chupitos is celebrating their 10th anniversary.

Not resting on their laurels, Jamie and her team are determined to see similar success with Brass Lion Distillery. Apart from continuing to push out new experiences and campaigns to the public, they also have several products in the pipeline – a navy-strength and a barrel-aged gin, both of which are waiting to be bottled, as well as a single-malt whisky, which is still undergoing ageing in the cask. The plan is to increase their stronghold as a uniquely Singaporean brand, before they set their sights on expanding into the overseas market, says Jamie.

With three thriving F&B establishments already to her name, we can’t help but wonder: what’s next for this tenacious businesswoman? “World domination,” she playfully quips. But looking at what she has accomplished over the years, we wouldn’t be surprised if that’s something she manages to conquer as well.

A writer by profession, a gourmand by passion.