Jamie Koh: Creating a Singapore Spirit
Meet Jamie Koh, founder of Brass Lion Distillery, Singapore’s first stand-alone micro-distillery that manufactures their own local gin. Jamie’s adventure-loving personality and passion for entrepreneurship led her to open three distinct and unique F&B concepts in Singapore, despite the competitive landscape and multiple hurdles she faced.
Can you bring us back to the beginning and share with us how you came into the F&B industry?
Since young, I always knew that I wanted to do something different, such as starting my own business in something that I was passionate about.
During my college days, I was living in the US – initially in Atlanta, then New York, and finally, New Jersey. When I moved back to Singapore, I was in Clarke Quay during my first week back and I saw a sign that said, “Win this space!”
Long story short, I took part in this competition where the prize included a start-up space that was rent-free for six months. Based on the space layout and the retail environment at that time in Clarke Quay, we decided to open a Shots Bar. Eventually we won and that was how I got started on my F&B journey – with the first and only shots bar in Singapore, Chupitos.
Was it during your time at Chupitos that you also found your love for gin?
For me, I always love bringing new concepts to existing environments. Singapore did not really have a shots culture and I thought it would really work in Clarke Quay. My next restaurant bar was The Beast Southern Kitchen and Bourbon Bar where we serve cuisine from the American South as well as American whiskey – inspired by my college days in Atlanta, Georgia.
After launching my second F&B outlet, I met an increasing number of people keen on gaining knowledge about spirits. I took one year off to travel, and through my exploration of the drinks culture in various countries, realised that most countries had a spirit to call their own, but Singapore didn’t have one. So that was how the idea of starting a distillery came about.
I had the concept in mind, but I didn’t know how to distill, so I enrolled in distilling school and did apprenticeships around the world. Eventually, it took me about six years before the Brass Lion Distillery concept was realised.
Can you tell us about the Singapore Dry Gin? What does it taste like and how does it embody the Singaporean culture?
Gin is huge in British culture and when you mention gin, the gin that typically comes to mind is the London Dry Gin. The heavier juniper notes lends itself better to colder weather. Instead of replicating another gin that was like the London Dry, I wanted to create a gin that was made for our tropical weather. Hence, we created something more floral and citrusy, using local herbs and spices not typically found in gin such as the torched ginger flower and chrysanthemum. Other than the typical fruits like lemon and orange, we also use pomelo peels and tangerine peel, and that adds more interesting citrus elements into the Singapore Dry Gin.
What is your favorite part of being an entrepreneur? What were some of the main challenges you faced in this six-year long journey?
The best part of being an entrepreneur is that you feel like you can make a difference and to get things going. Even though it sounds cliché, being an entrepreneur means that you get to pursue your dreams. In contrast, sometimes due to bureaucracy in larger organisations, you may not have full control over what you want.
But I would say there were a lot of challenges along the way as an entrepreneur. For example, we took really long to obtain our license, which was the first hurdle we faced. What you see here today in this space had been never done before in Singapore, and until today, there is no space like this that exists in Singapore.
Was there any point in time you wanted to scrap the whole idea?
I have this “never say die” or “never give up” mentality. There were many times we didn’t know what the eventual outcome would be, and we had to take risks.
For example, since our still is handcrafted, we had to engage copper makers to make the still. At that time, we didn’t have the license to operate a distillery yet, but we couldn’t wait till it was approved to start placing the order for the still. And it was very expensive! When we paid in full for the still, we didn’t even know if we would be able to be able to ship it into Singapore nine months later, so that was one risk we had to take.
We also took a huge risk by securing the space before getting any approvals for our gin distillery. Even though we were unsure if we would get the official approval, we just went ahead to sign the lease first as by the time we obtain the approval, the space would have been taken by someone else!
With all these hurdles, it took us almost a year after we signed the lease before we opened our doors officially, but I never thought of scrapping the idea.
Can you tell us more about your leadership style?
I give the team a lot of autonomy, and I don’t micromanage. Brass Lion Distillery runs on a very lean team, hence to me, it’s always about hiring the right people.
We generally have a lower turnover rate compared to other F&B establishments, and that is because we focus a lot on their career progression. For example, our first manager started out as an assistant bartender and we trained him all the way up – empowering and training him with new skills based on what he was interested in.
What’s next for Brass Lion Distillery?
We are now focusing on bringing our Singapore spirits brand overseas. Our overseas expansion will focus on the Southeast Asia market first, but we have also been in the UK for various events. We are slowly making inroads, as we do not want to spread ourselves too thin.
I think many people are curious about Singapore Gin and the reaction has been quite positive! We recently participated in this gin festival in UK where a group of people came to our booth and told us, “We read the event’s listing and saw Singapore gin, so we came to you first as we didn’t want to miss out!” I wouldn’t have thought that Singapore gin would be so well-received there since the UK gin market is huge and there are so many gins, but maybe everyone is constantly looking for something different.
Do you have any advice for our younger members who are looking to be entrepreneurs? How did you manage to have capital to start three businesses?
I would say just do it! I think while entrepreneurship can be quite daunting, if you feel that you have a story to tell, or something that you feel addresses a pressing need, then do your homework, be prepared, and go for it. I started out in my early twenties, I had a clear vision in mind and I just went for it.
Aside from joining the competition in Clarke Quay, we also applied for a young entrepreneur’s grant. And if you think about it, I opened three outlets over ten years, which is actually not very fast. It was a deliberate move because firstly, I did not want to burn myself out and secondly, I did not want to expand too fast. Since Chupitos, I have not needed to put in extra capital into my businesses as all the capital needed have come from existing operations.
Besides your three businesses, what else do you like to do? Do you have other interests?
I love to travel, and I love adventures. I took one year off to travel the world, starting off with a one-way ticket to Iceland and then I went on to learn Spanish in Spain. Within six weeks, I learnt how to speak basic Spanish, so I booked a ticket to Argentina, traveling solo by land and flying out of Lime, Peru. I like to see the world and enjoy gaining new experiences. In Singapore, I always love to visit new restaurants and bars.
Is there a cause you are personally very passionate about?
Brass Lion Distillery is kickstarting a new programme which aims to help women get back into the workforce. We are offering opportunities to involve these women in our manufacturing process. We will be rolling out this programme soon and are quite excited to be contributing to the community through an initiative developed in-house.
We held a gin distillery tour with Jamie at Brass Lion Distillery on 6 December 2019. This interview and gin distillery tour is the first instalment of the YWLC Kicking it Back with Kickass Ladies Series, members-exclusive experiences which will feature young women who are trailblazers in their careers. Look out for more events with #kickassladies coming up in this series!