As far as homegrown tipple brands go, it has been quite an impactful year for white spirits. Two micro-distilleries – Tanglin Gin and Brass Lion Distillery – are producing gins infused with local botanicals. The Orientalist Spirits, set up by F&B entrepreneur Michel Lu, is distilling vodkas with a pan-Asian flavour profile.
It was only a matter of time before someone dabbled with brown spirits – Singapore’s very first single malt whisky is being aged in a 200-litre ex-bourbon cask in Brass Lion Distillery now.
“Right from the get-go, we were very clear that we didn’t want to make just gin when we set up our distillery a year ago,” said Jamie Koh, 34, founder of Brass Lion Distillery, which occupies a former warehouse on Alexandra Terrace.
“With our distilling licence, we have the opportunity to experiment. Our still is flexible enough to produce other spirits besides gin.” The distillery’s still is a hybrid of a pot and a column still, both of which allow for the production of gin, vodka, rum, and whisky.
To get the malted barley they needed to make the single malt whisky, Brass Lion Distillery worked with local beer brewer The General Brewing Co. to obtain the 2,000-litre wash or fermented mash for distillation. The malted barley was a strain known as Maris Otter, which produces malty, biscuit-ey ales and is commonly used in English brews.
In September, after a double-pot distillation at Brass Lion distillery, the distillate was filled into an ex-bourbon cask, which Koh had sourced from a German company that purchases used casks from all over the world.
“Ageing the single malt in an ex-bourbon cask would impart vanilla and woody notes to the whisky,” said Koh. “We didn’t have in mind any particular [whisky] label or brand as a reference when we started to create this spirit. But we wanted the whisky to be very drinkable, something that would appeal to the local palate. The average Singaporean drinker is not someone who would enjoy a heavily-peated style.”
“We didn’t have in mind any particular [whisky] label or brand as a reference when we started to create this spirit. But we wanted the whisky to be very drinkable, something that would appeal to the local palate.” – Jamie Koh
It’s worth noting that Brass Lion Distillery’s workspace on the ground floor, where the barrel currently sits, isn’t regulated by any temperature-control technology. Unlike in Scotland’s cool warehouses for barrel storage, the cask is exposed to the relentless humidity of our local climate, which, in any whisky maker’s mind, is a red flag with blaring klaxons. Hotter environments promote faster maturation – and a higher loss of the liquid via evaporation, a process known as the “angel’s share” in industry parlance.
Koh expects the “angel’s share” to be around six to seven percent per year (Scotch whisky, on other hand, offloads about two percent to the “angels”). But she isn’t concerned, noting that Taiwanese whisky makers face a rather similar climate but manage to make good whiskies.
“It didn’t make sense for us to mimic the cool temperature [of the warehouses] in Scotland. We wanted to create a truly Singaporean whisky, so we wanted this to be aged in our local climate, especially since this has never been done before in Singapore. It’s kind of a way to let us see what will happen to the whisky,” said Koh.
Koh and her team had tasted the whisky a month after it was put in the barrel, and were “satisfied with the samples”. The whisky was “clean” and had taken on “a little roundedness” from the oak. “We aren’t sure when we will bottle it yet,” she remarked. “We will release it when we are happy with it.”
The minimum ageing requirement for Scotch whisky is three years in casks, a rule that is unlikely to be applied here, given the humid, tropical conditions. We are guessing the spirit will be ready before the end of 2020. Koh expects to get 300 bottles – each holding 500ml – out of the cask; a small amount but a promising step in our fledgling whisky production scene.
Said Koh, “There are many things we want to do at this distillery, but we need to find the time. We are still a new company and we want to focus on gin production. Whisky is an experimental project for now.”
“We wanted to create a truly Singaporean whisky, so we wanted this to be aged in our local climate, especially since this has never been done before in Singapore.” – Jamie Koh