Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Jamie Koh just wanted one of her own in Singapore. Not just any gin joint, but a full-blown distillery in a standalone building – complete with copper still, cocktail bar, tasting room and herb garden. It took several years and a detour or two, but Koh, who has travelled the world and seen her fair share of gin joints – opened the Brass Lion Distillery in late-2018. She has since established herself as the Singapore slinger who created a native-born gin brand.

It was a circuitous route for Koh, 36, an F&B entrepreneur with a can-do spirit who never met an obstacle she couldn’t hurdle or a concept she couldn’t shape into a viable business. Success has meant that hers is a well-known story, but it’s one worth repeating.

A dozen years ago, soon after returning to Singapore from college in the US, Koh and a friend won ”The Ultimate Start-up Space”, a competition to turn a small unit in Clarke Quay into an F&B concept, offered rent-free for six months. The result was an all-shots bar named Chupitos. It moved later to a different location in Clarke Quay, but it’s still owned by Koh.


The bar gig would lead Koh to her next venture, a Southern-fried barbeque-and-bourbon place called The Beast, which would open about three years later. In-between, she bought a one-way ticket and travelled the world, eventually landing in San Sebastian in the Basque country where she enrolled in Spanish language school.

She put those language skills to use when she journeyed through South America later on the same trip. Koh related a memorable episode where she chatted with a local woman throughout the 10-hour bus journey from Sucre to La Paz in Bolivia. There, she bought a bottle of liqueur infused with coca leaves and other botanicals, leading her to wonder why Singapore didn’t have an equivalent tipple.

That and other taste experiences with native spirits and liqueurs discovered during the course of her travels served as the inspiration for a made in-Singapore spirit. Gin – so conducive to a tropical climate – was deemed the most appropriate candidate. Of course, being galvanised by a local beverage in Bolivia is a few steps removed from actually opening a distillery in Singapore – but Koh isn’t the sort to shirk from a challenge. Six years, a distillery space and a custom-made, one-ton, 150-litre copper still (christened Nala) later, Brass Lion was born.

Origami top & trousers, Issey Miyake.

Along the way, she enrolled in distillery school in the US, snagged an apprenticeship with a master distiller in Germany and learned to distill a wide range of fruits, plants, herbs and other botanicals. ”Opening in Singapore is a commitment,” she says. ”If we’re to call ourselves a Singapore brand then whatever it takes, I had to open in Singapore. If people say it can’t be done, whether it’s foolhardiness or not, I have the determination.” She adds: ”I always thrived on doing things differently, and I never wanted to follow the nine-to-five routine.”

Koh was undeterred by the fact that she didn’t have the relevant licences and permits in hand before she ploughed a significant sum into the business. It worked out in the end, but her determination was tested again in early 2020, barely a year after the distillery opened. ”That first year we deliberately focused on sinking our roots here but when we were ready to venture overseas, Covid hit and we felt the impact,” she says.

”The distillery is multi-faceted,” she adds. ”We supply restaurants, bars, and hotels. We couldn’t function as a tasting room, so we pivoted to virtual events and tours. We successfully reached people in Hong Kong through virtual sessions. Our expansion plans slowed, but we launched in the UK with (subscription club) Craft Gin Club. The post-Covid priority is expansion overseas,” says Koh. ”We’ve had many requests from abroad and I want to be available to them.”

As a small-batch distillery, Brass Lion produces about 200 bottles of craft gin per batch. The company has three core gins (Singapore Dry, Pahit Pink and Butterfly Butterfly Pea) plus limited-edition blends and one-offs like a single malt whisky that has been ageing for two years so far in an ex-bourbon cask.

Among the special editions was a pineappleinfused gin for Singapore Airlines. ”To build up a name, you need to offer experiences,” says Koh. ”In keeping with the spirit of sustainability, we used the pineapples to make a batch of gin-soaked pineapple tarts.”

Brass Lion collaborated with chocolate maker Mr Bucket Chocolaterie to make a Cacao Gin and also came up with a gin-related range using the by-products of distillation, such as a gin hot sauce. There was also a tie-up with Tiger Beer, promoting a drink comprising light lager mixed with Brass Lion’s sour plum calamansi liqueur. The distillery, formerly a woodworking warehouse, attracted artisans from other fields, and Brass Lion also worked with secondgeneration metalsmiths to create a gin ‘tree’ for serving food and drinks to customers.

The most important takeaway from a life less ordinary is to pay attention to what her heart tells her, says Koh. ”To step out of my comfort zone and not be afraid to deviate from the original plan, knowing that all I need to do is take the first step and the rest will follow.” It’s what she did during that transformative year-long trip a decade ago and it’s what she does now whenever the situation calls for it. ”This is something I’ve been able to apply during the pandemic, as I was able to manage the uncertainty and ever-changing situation by forging ahead and formulating plans very quickly.” She adds: ”In everything I do, I follow the same philosophy.”

This article was first published in Business Times.