made-in-singapore whisky

Photos: Vernon Wong, Hidden Hill Distillery

The future of whisky in Singapore has never been more spirited. With some of the most avid drinkers and collectors in the region, it may seem natural for Singapore to produce its own drams — but that has not been the case until very recently.

Without a history or industry of distilling on the island, coupled with a resolutely tropical climate not suited for the long ageing process, the barriers to entry are daunting, to say the least.  

It falls to a merry band of passionate craft distillers who are beginning to define what it means to have a true Singapore whisky, with all the benchmarks that would make us proud. It’s not a coincidence that all three distillers we spoke to eschewed shortcuts to complete all six processes from start to finish — malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation, and bottling.

Related: Why blended whisky can be as good as single malt whisky

 A made-in-Singapore whisky 

Jamie Koh, founder of Brass Lion Distillery. (Photo: Vernon Wong)

While Brass Lion Distillery is well-known for its Singapore-style gin, it has ventured into whisky territory, with its first single malt whisky slated for launch by September. 

Founder Jamie Koh, who set out to pioneer Singapore’s gin industry in 2018, configured her pot still to be able to distil rum and whisky as well. Just a year later, she took up the opportunity to produce whisky. “We are quite experimental, and at the time we had the resources to make whisky, so why not?” she recalls. 

In Scotland, many distilleries make gin as a cash flow solution while waiting for their whisky to mature. It was not the case for Brass Lion, which has always envisioned itself as a gin maker. “In fact, we had to pause production for a week and run the still 22 times around the clock, day and night, to turn 2,000 litres of wash (the alcoholic ferment) into 180 litres of whisky,” Koh says, still in slight disbelief.   

The process started with a collaboration with local craft brewer The General Brewing Co., working together to select the right top-fermenting ale yeasts and Maris Otter malt that would result in a wash with fruity, biscuit-like flavours.

We are quite experimental, and at the time we had the resources to make whisky, so why not?

Jamie Koh, founder of Brass Lion Distillery
Photo: Vernon Wong

The choice of ingredients was crucial, as fermentation was done at the local ambient temperature, requiring a thermotolerant yeast that would yield the wash. After distilling, the colourless new-make spirit was poured into an ex-bourbon barrel to mature. 

“The main hurdles were the opportunity cost and the patience needed,” Koh recounts. “There are no Singapore guidelines, and even Japan, with such an established industry, didn’t have guidelines until recently. We didn’t want to make up our own, so we followed the Scotch tradition from the get-go and waited three years, which is the minimum standard to be called Scotch in the United Kingdom.” 

Modelling the first Brass Lion Whisky after scotch helped take a lot of variables out of the equation. “We do it with a Singapore context and environment, but what remains constant is the pot still, double distillation and malt barley, rather than making a completely different whisky. We knew we wanted something lighter for Singapore’s weather, which is the same philosophy for our gins,” affirms Koh.

Koh anticipates that under 400 bottles of Brass Lion Whisky will be produced. Taste-wise, it offers dried apricot and vanilla on the nose, followed by rich honeyed sweetness on the palate with a bitter almond undertone. The finish ends with a hint of nutmeg spice. Koh shares that there are plans to produce more batches of whisky. “We will use different casks, such as port wine or sherry,” she reveals.

Related: How Suntory is charting the next stage of Japanese whisky

Making whisky from Hom Mali rice

made-in-singapore whisky
Simon Zhao. (Photo: Compendium Spirits)

“In the beginning, I tried malting Tibetan barley and even corn in the R&D process to make whisky,” says Simon Zhao. “My idea was to make a whisky that could represent Singapore or appeal to Asian palates. We grow a lot of rice in Asia. If a whisky is to originate from Singapore or Asia, then naturally to me, it would be made from rice.”

The founder — a chemical engineer by training — first started a meadery in 2015, leading to a deeper exploration of Asian ingredients and distillation that resulted in the birth of Compendium Spirits in 2019. Their flagship products use carefully sourced honey, molasses, gula melaka, and rice as the base of their gin, vodka, arrack, rum, and whisky, all produced in small batches in their Mandai facility.

made-in-singapore whisky
Photo: Compendium Spirits

Zhao eventually settled on using Hom Mali, a rice strain that is most pleasant. “It has a flavour that lingers in the mind and palate. My team’s impression is that of a newly-cooked pot of rice — the fragrance of the rice reminded us of home,” he enthuses. 

While the Hom Mali Single Grain Rice Whisky and its cask strength variant have been on the market since December 2021, there have been continuous innovations. In 2022, Compendium launched its Chartered programme, a bespoke barrel ageing programme allowing customers to age their choice and blend of Compendium spirits in a variety of casks, from four to 32 litres. Customers get a taste of being a whisky blender under Zhao’s guidance, as they may choose their base spirit, period of maturation, and even refill options, such as putting whisky into a rum-aged cask.  

In July, Compendium opened Anthology, a restaurant-bar at 10 Circular Road, with a lounge for Chartered members to store and taste the progress of their whisky in town. More excitingly, Zhao is researching a new rice whisky that boasts flavours that range from caramel to wine to ume (plum) in different rice strains.

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Building a distillery from scratch 

made-in-singapore whisky
Ernest Ng. (Photo: RedDot BrewHouse)

As a professional brewer for the past 15 years — with an even longer background as a contractor for 20 years before that — Ernest Ng is uniquely poised as both the head distiller and founder of Hidden Hills Distillery, slated to launch around September. True to its name, the Scotch-style distillery is a spin-off and hidden behind RedDot BrewHouse which Ernest established in Dempsey in 2007. 

While the underground warehouse/cellar is under construction, the production facility, which was designed by Ng, has already been in R&D use for rum, gin, and vodka. Aside from the purchased 500-litre copper still, he designed the brewhouse, which comprises a mash tun, brew kettle and filter press, as well as fermenters.

“I didn’t have to go to Scotland to learn the process. As a former contractor, I can strip away all the marketing and go straight to the science of distilling,” he remarks as we survey the compact and neat set-up. “The rest is the art of it — developing the palate and deciding on the taste of the final product.”

Ng has already dabbled in single malt whisky at RedDot’s brewing facility in Melbourne, a product that is currently maturing and will likely be brought to Singapore to bottle.

I didn’t have to go to Scotland to learn the process. As a former contractor, I can strip away all the marketing and go straight to the science of distilling. The rest is the art of it — developing the palate and deciding on the taste of the final product.

Ernest Ng, Founder of RedDot BrewHouse and Hidden Hills Distillery
made-in-singapore whisky
Photo: RedDot BrewHouse

Hidden Hills’ strength lies in its years of experience in brewing, affirms Ng. “As a qualified brewer, I have mastery over fermentation, and having a good wash will produce good distillate — whether rum, whisky, gin, or vodka.” The distillery plans to produce a core range of single malt, single grain, slightly peated malt, and bourbon-style whisky that’s 51 per cent corn, all made with its own wash. 

As they are ageing the whisky in Singapore, they will introduce gins and rum first. “The gins will have more of a Singaporean character through the selection of unique botanicals such as the champaka flower, while there is less room for me to play with whisky, which is already quite defined,” he elaborates. Yet it’s just the beginning for Singapore’s craft scene to grow beyond gin and vodka and into the serious world of whisky.