In our third edition of Makers & Shakers we had a long chat with Jamie Koh, founder of Singapore’s very own homegrown distillery Brass Lion. We distill that conversation into this interview.
Singapore was devoid of a distilling industry until 2018, when suddenly everything changed. That year two distilling outfits appeared in quick succession, opening the way to a proper local spirits-making scene in the Republic.
Unbeknowst to many, it was the dogged tenacity of one Singaporean that opened the way. Jamie Koh, founder of Brass Lion Distillery, persistently contended with authorities for years to finally get her distillery open in 2018. Since then she’s worked hard to grow the Brass Lion brand, and now intend to take her made-in-Singapore gins to the rest of the world.
We sat down for a chat with this serial entrepreneur.
For the benefit of those who may not have heard of you, tell us a little bit about yourself and Brass Lion.
I’ve always been pretty entrepreneurial-minded from young. After completing my business degree in the States, I worked for a while but realised that what I really wanted to do was to start my own business. I moved back to Singapore in 2009, and started my entrepreneurial journey in the world of F&B.
I was in my early twenties when I started my first business, Chupitos, a shooters bar in Clarke Quay. At that time, the industry was dominated by middle-aged, local male bar owners. This concept is the first-of-its-kind in Singapore; naturally, they did not take me seriously. Some even told me directly that I should expect to close my doors in six months!
After my first concept, I knew that what I enjoyed was creating new concepts and bringing new experiences to people.
Brass Lion Distillery was conceptualised in 2012. The dream was to create Singaporean spirits that highlighted botanicals native to our region of the world. It was a long journey but we finally opened our doors in 2018.
That’s when we met you for the first time – Chupitos Bar had emerged champion at The Ultimate Start-up Space competition presented by Martell back in 2011. Tell us what has transpired since then.
We won six months free rent and S$20,000 seed money from the competition, which was amazing. We took the risk to open Chupitos despite the fact that there was no certainty as to whether we would be allowed to continue beyond the six months. At some point, the landlord did take the unit back, and there was a one year gap between the time we closed Chupitos to the time our new lease started in the new unit.
I took that one year off which was back in 2012 and bought a one-way ticket to travel the world. I went to Europe, US, China and backpacked Latin America by land. That one year was a much-needed break. It gave me the inspiration to start Brass Lion. Towards the end of that trip, I enrolled myself in distilling school in the US. The rest is history!
Coming back to Singapore in 2013, I re-opened Chupitos. In that same year, I opened also The Beast. Fortunately both units did relatively well from the get-go. I was able to focus my attention on starting Brass Lion while running both outlets at the same time.
Chupitos is 13 years old now and I view the longevity of the concept in such a fickle industry as a real achievement. It speaks volumes about the effort made towards building the brand.
Such a consummate serial F&B entrepreneur. Tell us more about (the unfortunately now-shuttered) The Beast, and other F&B projects you’ve been involved in.
I started The Beast in 2013, 6 months after re-opening Chupitos. I came across a three-storey shophouse in Kampong Glam that reminded me of a barn, and I thought back upon the time I spent as a college student in Atlanta, Georgia in the US, which was one of the best times of my life. I realized that it was hard to get Southern comfort food in Singapore, and there weren’t many places then that offered craft beers and bourbons. So I decided to bring a slice of the American South to Singapore with The Beast.
We served items like chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and home-made pies. A lot of those came from family recipes that my friends got from their grandmas! It was an unpretentious, feel-good bar where we had live music on the street and people were sitting outside and dancing on the streets.
Unfortunately COVID hit and, like most other restaurants and bars, we couldn’t open. We had to quickly pivot to delivery. And even when we could open, music of any sort was not allowed. People were eating their meals in silence, which was extremely depressing! Running the business at that point felt more like a grind with the constant COVID pivots, so we decided to take a break and not renew our lease at the end of last year.
Share with us your journey in founding Brass Lion. What were the biggest challenges you faced?
With Brass Lion, 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 wrote to over 500 distillers all over the world, trying to convince them to take me on as an unpaid intern, 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 internships with various distilleries in the US and Europe, allowing me to gain much-needed experience.
It was also extremely challenging getting the relevant licenses to open Brass Lion, because there was no precedent. 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.
Building a brand from scratch also meant that we had to get people to know and recognise the Brass Lion brand both locally and overseas. Brand building is not an overnight process. We are still working hard at it every day.
Clear our doubts once and for all – is Brass Lion Gin or Tanglin Gin the first to be made in Singapore?
Does home distilling 10 years ago count?
If you really want to get into it, we started our journey way before anyone else back in 2012 when I took my first distilling course. This is because I wanted to take the time to master the art and craft before launching. When we started the license application process back then, the authorities said that we were the first ones as there was no license precedent. They didn’t know what to do with us!
We made our launch announcement probably two months after Tanglin, but we had already built our distillery and had been paying rent on the distillery for almost a year prior. So we were already in existence, just that we hadn’t made a big announcement yet as we were still in the midst of planning our media launch and party.
If we wanted to, we could have opened a year earlier than we did by opening a pure manufacturing facility. However the licenses took us a longer time because we also wanted to provide the full experience of a tasting room, distillery tours, and gin making classes. I believe the longer wait to get the approval was worth it, as we were the only ones to have the full suite of offerings which allowed our guests to come visit the distillery and experience our brand home.
All that aside, I believe that being first doesn’t really matter. In the long run, the quality of the product and the authenticity of the brand should take precedence.
This is certainly a competitive space! In the past couple of years we’ve seen many distilling outfits pop up in Singapore, including Singapore Distillery and Compendium Spirits. What are your thoughts about the competition? Do you think there’s more space for newer players in the market?
I think that we are all very different. We all bring a different angle to the scene. The good thing is that with more players in the market, it helps to bring awareness to the fact that we do have craft spirits made right here in Singapore. The increased awareness would then create a bigger market for all of us.
How many times have we seen a bar that claims to be proudly local but only uses foreign spirits and beers on their beverage list? Or a restaurant which says they are farm-to-table and source their produce locally, yet their beverage list is 100% imported? Although we are fortunate enough to have a few strong proponents for our brand, the reality is that there is still a long way to go for us local craft beverage producers in terms of market acceptance and adoption.
That being said, the Singapore market is very small. Any new players entering would need to be well differentiated, or have a compelling preposition in order to stand out.
Where do you think Singapore’s cocktail scene is at, and where do you see it heading in the near future?
Singapore’s cocktail scene has become quite a force to be reckoned with in recent years! I attended the World’s 50 Best Bars awards in London right before COVID hit. Every time a Singapore bar was announced, I felt a huge sense of pride! It’s really a remarkable achievement considering we didn’t really have a scene just ten years ago.
I can only see it getting bigger and better.
What’s one Brass Lion gin experiment that you’ve really, really liked, but have never made it to market?
It was one of the initial versions of the Singapore Dry Gin that had an extremely intense profile of lemongrass. However, the flavour can be quite polarising! We decided to go with a version that would appeal to a wider audience.
What’s next for Brass Lion?
Our goal is for Brass Lion Distillery to be a world-renowned brand. With the recent disruptions caused by the pandemic, our plans for international expansion was put on hold. Now, as borders are opening up, we will be starting up our engines again and work towards bringing our brand out to the world.
On a more personal level – tell us where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Singapore, and why.
For local food, I enjoy the following:
D’ Authentic Nasi Lemak at Marine Parade
I grew up in the Katong area and this was one of the regular breakfast staples that I would find on our dining table on the weekends. This is one of my favourites not only because it’s nostalgic, but also because it has all the components one would expect from a good plate of nasi lemak. The rice is fluffy with a fragrant coconut aroma, but light enough that it is not too cloying. The chicken wing is crispy and flavourful, and the chill is sweet with the right amount of spice. My favourites are actually the dishes that you can add on to your nasi lemak – the chicken rendang and sambal cuttlefish are the best!
Lee Kwang Kee Teochew Cuisine
As a night owl, I’m always looking for 24-hour dining spots. I never used to be a fan of fish porridge, but their Teochew fish porridge is perfect for a rainy day or after a couple of drinks! It comes in a large black pot that is more soup than rice. The broth is rich, almost milky and the fish is fresh.
Xiao Di Hokkien Mee
While I like the dry style of Hokkien mee, the wet saucy Hokkien mee has a special place in my heart. In my opinion, Xiao Di has one of the best wet-style Hokkien mee in Singapore. Every spoonful of noodle comes soaked in the rich and robust prawn stock, and the homemade sambal belachan on the side adds a different dimension to the dish. The dish is delicious enough on its own though, so I’ll usually eat half the plate by itself to enjoy the original flavours, and the other half with the chilli.
Manhattan is always a good time and they have an amazing barrel-aged Brass Lion cocktail on their new menu. Barbary Coast and Gibson are good bets as well. If I have guests from out of town, I’ll take them to LeVeL33 or Caffe Fernet for the view. Caffe Fernet has a Brass Lion Aperol Spritz that’s perfect for sundowners!
[Image credits: Joel Lim Photography]
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