“Stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create something of value instead of living off buying and selling of others”
As Singapore’s first standalone micro- distillery, Brass Lion is breaking new grounds in the local and regional F&B scene. Home to the Singapore Dry Gin, the distillery took six years from its initial conception to the time its copper still flowed for the first time.
Brass Lion Distillery is the brainchild of Jamie Koh, who first thought of setting it up in 2012 when she realised there wasn’t a craft spirit that Singapore could call its own. With already two F&B establishments to her name — Chupitos Shot Bar and The Beast are both popular local diners — Jamie embarked on a journey that would take her six years to complete, one that saw her tour and apprentice at numerous distilleries around the world.
Since its opening in 2018, Brass Lion has garnered acclaim for its craft spirits made from natural ingredients grown in its own herb garden or sourced from local traditional Chinese apothecaries and wet markets. But Jamie, who turns 34, is not resting on her laurels. Expansion is in the pipeline, with the goal of taking her spirits to the corners of the earth.
I was working in the US in consulting and was unfulfilled in my corporate job. I wanted an avenue to make a difference, and to create something that I could call my own. In 2009, I decided to take the plunge to pursue my passion in food and drinks, and moved back to Singapore to do so. I knew that I could liven up the industry because all the concepts that I wanted to create would be completely new to Singapore’s F&B landscape. At that same time, there was a competition that had just launched in Clarke Quay called the Ultimate Startup Space, where the best concept would win a space rent-free for 6 months and $20,000 seed money. One of the concepts I was considering was a shooters bar, which I knew would be perfect for the space. Chupitos was eventually crowned as the winner and that set me on my path as a serial entrepreneur. Subsequently, I opened The Beast, a restaurant focusing on Southern American comfort food and bourbons, which was inspired by my time spent attending university in Atlanta, Georgia. I had always felt that it was a pity that Singapore did not have local spirits to call its own, and in 2012, I enrolled myself in distilling school in Washington State. Over the next couple of years, I fully immersed myself in mastering the art and science of distillation, with the aim of starting a distillery in Singapore, highlighting botanicals native to this region of the world. Last year, Brass Lion Distillery opened its doors to the public, and also launched its flagship product, the Brass Lion Singapore Dry Gin.
It’s the first standalone micro-distillery in Singapore. The reason it took so long to start was because there weren’t any local distilleries previously; we had breweries but not distilleries, and what we wanted to create was the whole experience. We wanted an experiential space, not just a manufacturing facility. We had to work closely with the government to get this concept pushed through. Our space is a working distillery on the first floor, with a herb garden at the back. Upstairs, we have a workshop space and a tasting room where we serve cocktails and small bites. We conduct distillery tours, gin masterclasses and even a workshop where participants get to make their own gin.
We create small-batch spirits featuring botanicals from this region of the world. We have our flagship Singapore Dry gin, which is a truly tropical gin, perfect for our climate. There is also the Butterfly Pea gin which changes colour once citrus is added and we are launching the Pahit Pink gin, featuring our very own Singaporean bitters.
I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, I’ve always wanted to start my own business. I want to bring ideas to life. I worked in the corporate world before coming out to start my own businesses and I knew the corporate lifestyle wasn’t for me. I get a sense of satisfaction in bringing my ideas to fruition.
We want to be known as the group that has innovative concepts and bring new items to the market. Right now we want to build Brass Lion and spread it globally, we are ramping up production, and eventually we want to build a strong brand presence throughout the rest of the world.
It is extremely challenging to find experienced and committed staff in the restaurant and bar industry in Singapore. With the tightening of labour laws on foreign employees, businesses have to rely heavily on the local workforce. The experienced managers I hired in the beginning were used to the traditional way of running F&B establishments and could not understand my concepts and how I wanted to disrupt the industry. Younger staff who were more receptive to new ideas usually do not view this industry as one in which they could build a career on. By ensuring a good culture and putting a career progression plan in place, I was able to build a young and enthusiastic team. I have always valued one’s attitude over work experience, and spent a significant amount of time on training and building up a strong core team. With Brass Lion Distillery , 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 had to write to distillers all over the world, convincing 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 Distillery , because there was no precedent and 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.
For us now, we’re trying to build the Brass Lion brand from scratch, so the question is how to get the word out and convince Singaporeans that they should go local, support local, and convince global markets to take our brand. It’s easier to stand out in Singapore because it is a small market, but overseas, it’s a question of how we hold our ground in the competitive global marketplace.
I enjoy checking out new restaurants and bars. It’s a job hazard but fortunately I enjoy it as well!
Adaptability.You need to have a firm pulse on what is happening in the industry and be quick to adapt and react to market conditions. We are also building up a strong core team to ensure that we have experienced personnel to handle future opportunities and challenges.