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The Beginning of Singapore's Gin Industry

By Kames Narayanan

A bottle of orchid gin produced within the boundaries of Tanglin Gin distillery.
Tung Pham
A bottle of orchid gin produced within the boundaries of Tanglin Gin distillery.

Chances are even to the teetotal Singaporean, the name “Singapore Sling” rings a bell. Since its conception in (what is believed to be) 1915, the gin-based libation has earned an international repute as the city’s national cocktail.

Packing a full-bodied, zesty punch underscored by the tangy flavour of pineapple juice and cherry-flavoured brandy, a sip of the red-hued Singapore Sling is meant to embody the spirit of its namesake country. While its identity and origin are so closely pinned to Singapore, ironically, like most things made locally, its core ingredient (gin) was outsourced.

In the past, foreign-based distilleries like Paper Lantern and Tippling Club’s Sons of Tippling have long called to claim themselves “Singaporean gin” — a tagline true only in flavour, rather than origin. Despite the local alcohol arena being abuzz with microbreweries and boasting a thriving cocktail culture, a gaping hole was left to be filled in the category of distilleries.

A long time coming, Singapore can now legitimately declare itself the home to local-made gin, owing to two distilleries — Tanglin Gin and Brass Lion Distillery — which have set up base here within the past year. More than merely wearing a badge of honour for being “Made in Singapore”, the establishment of the two distilleries spells a promising start for the larger alcohol industry.

In expounding the possibility of operating a
gin distillery here, Tanglin Gin and Brass Lion Distillery are key in diversifying Singapore’s alcohol arena, prompting liquor enthusiasts to look within the country, rather than overseas for supply. Along the way, also holding the door open for future spirit producers to take up a bigger slice of the fledgling industry.

Tanglin Gin

Tung PhamIngredients that go into the making of Singapore's inaugural gin line a table inside the distillery.
Ingredients that go into the making of Singapore's inaugural gin line a table inside the distillery.

The genesis of Tanglin Gin wrote the first chapter in the local gin industry’s narrative. When the team of four men hailing from different parts of the world — Tim Whitefield and Chris Box from down under, Charlie van Eeden from Holland and Briton Andy Hodgson — conceived the idea of a gin micro-distillery, they had set out to do what no one else in the country had done before.

To say the least, the team of four had their work cut out for them, 
particularly so, as none of
 the four men were formally 
trained in the industry.
 In fact, they each held 
nine-to-five positions in
 varying sectors from 
finance to marketing — all
 of which, eventually worked out parallel to their respective roles at Tanglin Gin.

In building a micro-brewery from the ground up, the men had to navigate inhibiting bureaucratic barriers. “When we started, there was nothing similar to what we had sought out to achieve and in fact, a new category had to be created for us. We had to help them understand what we had sought out to achieve,” says van Eeden, the establishment’s marketing chief.

What ensued was an arduous year-long process to educate authoritative bodies on the ins and outs of a local gin distillery. The men, however, had their trump card in this correspondence
— Hodgson, whose day job saw him communicating with foreign governments on the regular, was well-versed with the formalities.

Yet, nose-diving into an entirely new category presented the monumental risk of bureaucratic rejection. “There was only one way in going about things. It was to build the distillery and later, apply for the license. If the whole thing had fallen through, I would have had no idea what to do,” says van Eeden in between nervous laughter.

The bold call paid off.

Inside Tanglin Gin’s distillery, located in the northern end of the city, sit neatly lined bottles of their signature expression of gin — an articulation conceived through 11 different botanicals all of which bear some allegiance to Singapore.

“We wanted to create something that embodies the spirit of Singapore,” says van Eeden. The eventual concoction is built around the all-important national flower, orchid. Other traditional ingredients added into the mix like juniper, angelica roots and cassia further accentuate the flavour profile of the eventual libation.

Currently counting a production capacity of about 45,000 bottles a year, Tanglin Gin has their eyes transfixed on expansion. In the final stages of conceiving their second expression, the mandarin chilli gin, the men eventually hope to increase the production numbers, further expand on their line of products and possibly look into relocating closer to the city centre.

“We do have the ambition to move to a place that is really a destination for people to visit. That would be in the next year or the year after,” says van Eeden.

Brass Lion Distillery

Brass Lion DistilleryThe facade of Brass Lion Distillery.
The facade of Brass Lion Distillery.

Situated along the industrial dwelling of Alexandra Terrace stands a curious two-storey standalone edifice befittingly guarded by a lion statue. The building is home to the barely two-month-old, multi-concept craft spirits distillery, Brass Lion Distillery.

The heavy rotating metal door of the distillery swings open to reveal a sprawling interior. The first floor where a cutting-edge copper still imported from Germany stands opens up to a herb garden where some of the gin’s raw ingredients are grown. The fruits of labour from the distil are then taken to the second floor, where a tasting room serves its guests a menu of gin-based cocktails. Gin enthusiasts are also able to concoct their own libations at the distillery’s research and development lab, located on the same level.

Brass Lion DistilleryA cutting edge copper still imported from Germany.
A cutting edge copper still imported from Germany.

Granted the sheer scale of the distillery, it is easy to see why the idea was six years in the making.

“I conceptualised Brass Lion six years ago in 2012. At that point in time, there weren’t any local spirits and I felt strongly that we should have a spirit to call our own,” says Jamie Koh, the brains behind the establishment.

In the years after, Koh, who is also the woman behind local shots bar, Chupitos, acted on conceiving her dreams into reality.

“I went to distilling schools in the United States and I also took up internships in Germany,” she shares.

Brass Lion DistilleryThe research and development lab within which workshops held will allow gin enthusiasts to craft their own concoctions.
The research and development lab within which workshops held will allow gin enthusiasts to craft their own concoctions.

It was during her time in
 Germany that the recipe of
the inaugural Brass Lion
 gin was formulated. A
 blend of 22 botanicals
 sourced from within a 
five-kilometer radius, the Brass Lion Gin is as Singaporean as it gets.

“With the amount of botanicals that go into making gin, you can really showcase the array of botanicals available in the region. And we can explore different possibilities with the flavour of the gin. There is just so much to play with,” says Koh.

Brass Lion Distillery

Currently, the distillery produces three different expressions: the debutant Singapore dry gin, a butterfly pea (flower) gin and pahit gin (a traditional Southeast Asian cocktail of gin and bitters). Koh is, however, sure to discern Brass Lion Distillery as a craft spirit distillery not one entirely dedicated to gin.

In the pipelines, Koh has plans in place to expand her product range of spirits. “There are so many ideas, I am just not sure which ones we would want to work on,” says Koh.