Food & Drink

These Delicious Gins Distill the Essence of Singapore Into a Glass

Using native spices and locally grown botanicals, the city-state’s distilleries are bottling up the next great wave of craft gin.

Singapore Distilleries: Nala Copper Pot Still at Brass Lion Distillery

Nala Copper Pot Still. Courtesy of Brass Lion Distillery

By Simon Willis

Sep 30, 2022

ONE RECENT AFTERNOON I was sitting at a bar in downtown Singapore, eyeing a bottle suspiciously. I was there to meet Frank Shen and Simon Zhao, cofounders of Compendium, one of several new gin distilleries that have opened in the city. All of them are creating Southeast Asian twists on gin, but none takes it quite as far as Shen and Zhao. 

In front of me was a gin called Rojak, named after a kind of chopped salad eaten across Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia that can contain anything from pineapple and bean sprouts to deep-fried tofu and shrimp paste. I took a sip, half-expecting the umami whack of fermented crustaceans. But happily Shen and Zhao are not literalists. The only ingredient they have taken from the recipe is the rojak flower itself, the petals of which are often sprinkled over the salad. In their gin, the warm, earthy element masks the medicinal tang of juniper, the spirit’s main botanical.

Singapore Distilleries: Atlas Singapore
FROM LEFT: Atlas, in Singapore, displays its gin collection in an eight-meter-high cabinet; The Atlas martini uses London dry gin, but the bar keeps 1,300 varieties in stock. Photos by Lauryn Ishak (2)

Until 2018, Singapore had no distilleries of its own. This is surprising for two reasons. First, in the past decade the city has become a destination for drinkers. Six of its bars are on the World’s 50 Best Bars list—more than any other city. One of them, Atlas, is a gin specialist with more than 1,300 varieties on its menu. Second, many of the most common botanicals used to flavor gin are native to Southeast Asia, including licorice, coriander, and cassia bark. 

The gin distilling scene in Singapore was started by four expatriates—two Brits, one Australian, and a Dutchman. One night back in 2017 they were drinking at Atlas and noticed that not a single bottle of gin was local. Looking for a sideline to their office jobs, they decided to make their own. 

Singapore Distilleries: Tanglin’s Orchid Gin has a slight sweetness that makes it perfect for a negroni
Tanglin’s Orchid Gin has a slight sweetness that makes it perfect for a negroni. Courtesy of Tanglin Gin

They chose the name Tanglin, after the upscale neighborhood that was once the center of the city’s spice trade. I visited the distillery for a tour and tasting with Charlie van Eeden, the Dutch cofounder, and Bradley Young, a bearded Australian who runs the day-to-day operations. In one corner was a stainless-steel contraption covered in valves and knobs and gauges that looked like a lunar capsule from the early days of space exploration. This is where strong botanicals like juniper and cassia are distilled in pure ethanol before passing through a series of flavor baskets containing softer aromatics like orange peel. 

In many ways Tanglin’s philosophy is similar to Compendium’s. “We emphasize Chinese, Malay, and Indian flavors to reflect Singapore’s cuisine,” Young said as he led me to a table of botanicals that included pepper from Kampot, Cambodia, and dried mango powder, or amchoor. The results, however, are more traditional than Compendium’s concoction. Their signature drink, Orchid Gin, is named after the national flower of Singapore and is flavored with orchid, which lends its subtly sweet vanilla scent to a classic, juniper-rich London dry. 

Singapore Distilleries: Jamie Koh, the founder of Brass Lion, which uses only local ingredients
Jamie Koh, the founder of Brass Lion, which uses only local ingredients. The distillery even has an herb garden on site. Courtesy of Brass Lion Distillery

Other distilleries have followed Tanglin’s lead and adopted the trend for terroir. Brass Lion Distillery, which opened a month after Tanglin in 2018, emphasizes citrus fruits, such as calamansi, a kind of small, sweet lime. “It’s really because of the weather here,” explained Satish Vaswani, Brass Lion’s head distiller, when I visited for a tasting. “It’s so hot in Singapore that we wanted something light.”

Of all the distilleries in Singapore, Brass Lion brings you closest to the craft itself. Vaswani led me around its renovated industrial building, which dates back to the 1950s, near Singapore’s port. The gleaming copper still on the ground floor is surrounded by giant tubs of botanicals and a bottling machine. Upstairs is a bar for tasting sessions and a “gin school,” a small room containing 10 miniature stills where Vaswani leads weekend classes in gin making.

In the bar, Vaswani laid out a flight of gins for me to try, all of which have Brass Lion Singapore dry gin as their base. The most unusual is called Butterfly Pea Gin, after a local plant with a deep-blue flower. In Singapore the butterfly pea is traditionally used by Peranakans, who descend from 15th-century Chinese settlers, for dishes like kueh salat, sweet rice cakes topped with coconut custard. At Brass Lion, Vaswani soaks the flowers in Singapore dry gin to extract the color. Then he infuses a hint of lavender, which adds a light floral note. When you mix the gin with tonic water, the acid in the tonic changes the pH, turning the drink from blue to a pleasingly summery shade of pink. 

The one flavor that none of the Singapore distilleries has yet touched is one of the most distinctive and divisive in Southeast Asia: durian. This large spiky green fruit is highly prized—a fact that baffles visitors, owing to the putrid smell of its yellow flesh. But according to Jesse Vida, the head bartender at Atlas, it’s only a matter of time. “It doesn’t exist yet,” he said, “but it’s definitely gonna happen.” 

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