Ask any reasonable person and they’d no doubt agree that creating Singapore’s whisky is possibly a fool’s errand. But that didn’t stop Brass Lion distillery.
Picture Scotch whisky’s whimsical Highlands and its gentle, luscious fields, or enigmatic Islay and its stormy waters; and it is from these hallowed grounds that your whisky comes from – or at least that’s why the marketing brochures look the part. So the question is, what is it about our eternal summers, heavy traffic, occasional haze, and bureaucratic excellence that makes distilling a malt whisky a good idea?
The fact that we’re a food paradise notwithstanding, you’d have to agree that at least based on perception, Singapore will never be the first place anyone would think of when it comes to distilling something as romanticised as whisky. So why did anyone here think that trying to make Singapore’s first whisky would be a good idea? The answer possibly was: because they could.
The emphasis is on ‘they’ because this was a combined effort: Distilled by Brass Lion Distillery with the help of whisky aficionado Javin Chia – who was interning there while currently studying Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. And to help in making the wash was Singapore’s The General Brewing Company, which are behind brands such as That Singapore Beer Project and Daryl’s Urban Ales.
For Jamie Koh, founder of the Brass Lion Distillery, this effort is a personal milestone. “I’ve had this long list of things that I’ve always wanted to do, and whisky has always been near the top of my list,” she said. But this is, of course, par for the course for someone who’ve managed to put together one of Singapore’s fully-fledged distilleries.
None of them had any idea how the spirit for Singapore’s first whisky will turn out. All they had was the desire to do it and the moment seemed right – they were all on the same page and more importantly, they were all in the same +65 at the same time. However, Javin was due to return to Scotland and it meant they had to pull long hours to get it done. The race against the clock was on: squeaky bum time, hug the Buddha’s leg; insert your other tired metaphors here.
But first, a little flashback to a popular local pastime – paperwork: being the first in Singapore to attempt to produce whisky, they had to do multiple rounds of meetings with the authorities in order to effectively legalise the process.
Although time-consuming, meetings with the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) to discuss the making Singapore’s first whisky went relatively smoothly, as they were less concerned about what spirit they were making so long as they met the required standards where facilities and processes are concerned. But when it came down to taxation, things were a bit trickier. To be fair, Singapore Customs are more used to big boy establishment setups than a small scale, gritty craft distillery. Jamie explained that most of the time was spent going through the whisky-making process, getting the wash from the brewery to the distillery within bond and calculating the angel’s share to work out the tax. In all fairness, they did their best to understand this entirely new concept every step of the way and adjusted their own bureaucratic processes on their end to make it work.
Now that’s out of the way, it’s back to the nitty gritties. It all starts with Maris Otter, a two-row barley that is more commonly used in brews than it is in whisky. To maximise yield and character to get a fruity, rich wash, General Brewing Company used a combination of yeasts: high gravity yeast to bring out the sugars, ale yeast rounds it out with fruitiness. Fermentation was designed to take place at room temperature of 30 degrees celsius. After 35 hours of fermentation and another 36 hours of letting the yeast clean up in the fermenter, they wound up with 2,000 litres of wash at 9.5% abv.
The spirit was distilled using a high reflux, modern hybrid still where they bypassed the column section to go straight into a shell and tube condenser. The resulting spirit is designed to lean towards a lighter, fruitier style and yet, the maltiness of the Maris Otter is still able to come through.
“I didn’t want a boring whisky. I didn’t something that was simple, I didn’t want something that I could mistake for some other whisky from any other part of the world.”
Javin explains that effectively, they use a 2.5 times distillation (they distil the heads and tails) and the cuts are ‘pretty standard’, though he clarified that in practice he made the cuts according to taste, similar to how Brass Lion does it for their gin.
If you haven’t been the Brass Lion Distillery (check it out, there are even classes to learn how to distill your own gin) then you might not know that their stills aren’t very big. The 150 litre still is pretty small by any standard and they could only fill about 135 litres maximum at any one time as the wash is quite foamy. So, with 2000 litres of wash, they had to distil 22 times (5 spirit distillations) in total to get 180 litres of spirit., which they filled into the sole ex-bourbon barrel that they deigned not to name but were comfortable hinting that it has a number in its name.
Though the proverbial smoke had cleared at the battleground that was Brass Lion Distillery, the all-too-familiar haze hadn’t. Filling the spirit into the sole ex-bourbon barrel that they deigned not to name (but were comfortable hinting that it has a number in its name), I suppose no one will know if the smoky air will actually play a part in the maturation. We do know, however, that it will be something to think about as the whisky will be stored at the distillery at ambient temperature and not in an air-conditioned storage area.
So will Singapore be able to produce a malt whisky of global repute? Will there be more casks to come? Answers to come in three years…