When Jamie Koh, the managing director of Brass Lion Distillery, first set out to learn the art of distillation, her first stops were traditional Chinese medicine shops and local supermarkets across Singapore. Koh ended up collecting over 40 ingredients native to Asia. The next step was to pack a suitcase full of these products and slip pass immigration in Germany – where she spent days on end distilling everything from lemongrass to torch ginger flowers.
Six years later, the Brass Lion Distillery was born in September 2018. It is Singapore’s first micro-distillery – a boutique-style space dedicated to making high-quality spirits in small amounts. Koh’s distillery specializes in gin. The gin is produced in small batches, each hand-labeled and hand-bottled.
“The reason why we wanted to do this is to bring something new to the market here, but something also distinctly Singaporean and Asian,” Koh said in an interview with VICE. “Everything we use is central to Asia, and it’s all used in the context of our culture.”
The 4,000 square-foot stand-alone building might be tucked away on a quiet street in West Singapore, but is actually quite hard to miss. The upstairs space, covered by glass windows, sits beneath the words “Brass Lion Distillery” in polished gold lettering. A dark, brass lion statue guards the imposing burnished brass entrance.
Get past the grand doors and you find yourself in the actual distillery with an herb garden in its backyard. Wander up the stairs to a spacious tasting room, R&D lab, and bottle personalization room.
“This is an experiential place. We want people to learn about gin and our story, but also have a hands-on experience,” said Koh. “Every day is different here. We have workshops, make-your-own gin class, and our own operations.”
Their multiple workshops, held throughout the year, take place in the gin school where guests create their own bottles of the spirit containing 500 milliliters. Participants learn the thorough process of distilling and then choose their own flavors.
In keeping with the distillery’s name, the 150-liter main copper still is named after Nala, the Lion Queen from Disney’s Lion King. The still was hand-crafted by German master coppersmiths and took six months to complete. It’s all in the details at this distillery: everything is carefully curated, from the gin recipes to the stately decor. The preparation that goes into the production of alcohol is enormous. For example, the team hand-presses juniper berries which are then macerated for over 36 hours before being distilled. The rinds from lime and other tropical ingredients are also grated by hand.
Their signature gin, too, is an homage to Singapore’s geography and melting pot identity. Coined the Brass Lion Singapore Dry Gin – reminiscent of London’s world-renowned dry gin – it contains a balanced blend of 22 botanicals representing the island. These flavors include pomelo and mandarin peels, angelica root, kaffir lime leaves, and various other Asian herbs and spices.
What Brass Lion is doing is producing a gin encapsulating the identity of Singapore, which goes beyond these specific flavors.
“We use things we are familiar with and that Singaporeans are familiar with, even cross-culturally,” Koh said of these ingredients. “I wanted to create a more tropical gin, something citrusy and more light and refreshing. It’s made for Singapore.”
Koh is no stranger to firsts in Singapore’s food and beverage industry. She is also the owner of Singapore’s first (and pretty iconic) shots bar, Chupitos, as well as the island’s first Southern kitchen and bourbon bar, The Beast. As a female entrepreneur in Singapore, Koh says she has rarely been made conscious about being a woman in a largely male-dominated business.
“For me, my ventures are always what I can bring to the market and what my vision is,” she said. “Coming from the restaurant industry, which is male-dominated, I was quite used to being one of the few women in this space. The distillery industry is the same. But it’s always been more about keeping the end goal in mind for what I want to create. I don’t let [anything else] cloud that.”