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We're First to Taste Singapore's First Malt Whisky — Here's What We Think

Close to 4 years in the making - the first malt whisky in Singapore has officially debuted. The new make was first distilled sometime in September 2019, where the spirit spent roughly 4 years maturing within an ex-bourbon cask within the Brass Lion distillery.

This photo was taken back in 2019. Source: Channel News Asia

This Singapore’s first is a joint project between Brass Lion distillery and The General Brewing Co brewery. For a bit of background - Brass Lion itself started as a distilling outfit back in 2018 after 6 years of development, producing gin since. The General Brewing Co was also established in 2018 as a brewery incubator, producing local label Off Day Beer Company and incubating breweries like Niang Brewery Co.

The team from General Brewing and Brass Lion. Source: General Brewing

The team behind the project placed great focus on the local climate conditions - which meant letting the wash ferment and the spirit mature in Singapore’s naturally hot and humid climate. Given that Singapore has not yet coined any official guidelines for what makes Singaporean whisky Singaporean whisky, the team at Brass Lion took a leaf out of Scotland’s guidelines for whisky - stating that new make needs to be aged for a minimum of three years. Since the spirit entered the cask, the Brass Lion team have been taking samples every 6 months, and determined now's the time to bottle the spirit.

Source: Brass Lion

The Big Reveal 

On the outside, it looked as it business was as usual - just another Tuesday. However, the Brass Lion team were hard at work preparing for the big whisky reveal.

First, we were invited to try out a Negroni - made with the distillery’s barrel aged gin. The cocktail was strong (or perhaps, at acceptable strength given the crowd’s familiarity with high proof spirits) with a heady aroma of dark cherries and liquorice.

Starting out strong - a boozy Negroni made with the barrel aged gin. 

We were led down to see the cask itself - displayed in front of the still (named Nala, after the Lion Queen [the one that married Simba in Lion King]). The Brass Lion team procured two undisclosed ex-bourbon casks during their training in Germany, the right which aged the whisky while the left aged gin as anticipating drinkers waited for the whisky to be ready. 

The barrel for aging gin (left), the barrel for the whisky (right), and Nala (the still) at the back.

According to Jamie Koh, the founder of Brass Lion, the barrels were left at the back of the distillery, without much climate control. Due to the high ambient temperature in Singapore, the angel’s share was estimated to be roughly 8% by the time the whisky was ready for drinking (angel's share meaning the loss of ethanol and liquid due to evapouration from the pores of the cask). The matured whisky was not just a win as Singapore’s first malt whisky, but also for the spirits industry in terms of legislature. 

Jamie Koh, founder of Brass Lion, leading the session.

We were then led up to the 2nd floor of the distillery - where the tasting room and bar is. The wall described the step by step process of the whisky making journey, featuring some cameos from the General Brewing and Brass Lion team (see if you could spot some familiar faces).

On display was a sample of the Maris Otter malt, a popular malt amongst beer brewers for its biscuit, sweet flavours. 

To ferment the malt, a tailored blend of high-gravity yeast (80%) and ale yeast (20%) that could withstand high temperatures was selected to produce a fruity, funky wash. The high gravity yeast was selected for as it could withstand a high alcohol environment and ensured a higher alcohol yield, while the ale yeast produced the fruity, funky flavours. After 36 hours of primary fermentation and another 36 hours of secondary fermentation (which gave more fruity aromas and flavours), the resultant yield was a 2000 litres of 9.5% ABV wash. 

The wash was twice distilled into new make using Brass Lion’s pot 150 litre copper still, yielding 180 litres of the stuff. Given the small batch production, the distillery had to run the still 22 times over the course of a week to distill the precious liquid. In the tasting room, there are also sample aroma boxes to get a sense of what the wash and new make spirit smelled like when it was freshly produced. Hong Fu right at Whisky Geeks has written an article and his tasting notes on how the new make was like, fresh from the still.

 

After browsing through the information boards, we were led to our first three tipples of the night: the Singapore Dry Gin, the Barrel Aged Gin, and the star of the show Brass Lion Whisky - all paired with a canape. 

Brass Lion Singapore Dry Gin, 40% ABV — Review

Of course, as the whisky was maturing in the cask, the distillery could not afford to twiddle their thumbs. Most distilleries distill gin or other spirits while their whiskies were ageing away quietly, Brass Lion not being the exception. This gin was recommended to be paired with seafood, hence the salmon tar-tare with roe.

Nose: Bright and zingy, with a relatively strong juniper aroma on the nose. The gin evolves towards a more lemony profile, with that characteristic citrus scent from hinoki (Japanese cypress)

Palate: The first note I get is pomelo peels - slightly spicy and astringent. As the gin sits on my palate, it opens up more chrysanthemum and white tea flavours, which then evolves towards a confectioner’s sugar sweetness. The juniper flavours a present, but takes more of a backseat. 

 

Finish: The finish gets a bit astringent - reminding me of that mild bitter flavour of strongly steeped chamomile tea and tea stalks that have went through numerous brews of tea. 

My Rating

🙆

It’s a refreshing, floral and citrusy gin. I see its appeal to a wide audience, but juniper heads can still get a kick of their piney aromas in this gin. An agreeable gin all around.

 

 

Brass Lion Barrel Aged Gin, 43% ABV — Review

This barrel aged gin is the third batch of the series, where the Singapore Dry Gin has spent 9 months in the cask. The first batch of barrel aged gin was aged for 3 months in the barrel (the same ex-bourbon cask used to age the whisky) to give an idea of how the whisky might be evolving in the cask. 

For the barrel aged gin, it is paired with a sous vide egg, topped with pan seared foie gras and caviar. 

Nose: A strong ripe banana aroma alongside an over ripened strawberry scent takes over. There are some vanilla sugar aromas as well, backed by a waft of milk chocolate. 

Taste: The first tasting note I got was nutmeg spice, which quickly gave way to a vanilla custard profile. There are still hints of juniper on the palate, but it is masked by the spice and sweet flavours from the barrel.

Finish: Interestingly, the spirit gives a rounded, lemon zest flavour. It gets a bit less astringent on the palate as the spice, particularly the powdered nutmeg, fades off.

My Rating

⤴️

Wow! Quite an evolution from the Singapore Dry Gin. It’s interesting how the zappy-ier, floral, tea-like flavours make way for a denser, nutmeg forward aroma and taste. I taken special note of the milk chocolate - you’ll see why later!

 

Brass Lion Single Malt Whisky, 48% ABV — Review

The protagonist of the evening. The cumulation of four years of waiting. For this whisky, it is paired with a chocolate truffle with almonds. Here goes!

Nose: The first aroma was a strong hazelnut milk chocolate. After swirling and letting the aromas develop further in the glass, the chocolatey aromas dissipate and make way for dried apricots and desiccated apple. After a while, the aromas develop towards orangette. 

Palate: Straightaway, I get flavours of clover honey. It is quite sweet on the palate, with the prominent flavour being honey and nectar. As you let the flavours sit more on the palate, the malt character shows more, which leans towards a lighter, Marie biscuit sort of flavour. 

 

Finish: Towards the finish, the floral aromas come through. I get a flavour akin to jasmine-infused syrup, with a bit of that bittersweet astringency from angelica root. There is a dark chocolate nuttiness as well.

My Rating

🏁

With such a short time in the barrel, this whisky is truly quite something! For a first attempt in making a true-blue Singaporean malt whisky (save for the malt that was grown in the UK) I think this is a solid start. For the folks who like sweet, floral leaning whiskies, this whisky could be the right fit for the bill. 

 

Brass Lion Single Malt Cask Strength Whisky, 65% ABV — Review

With popular demand amongst the brewing and whisky community, the Brass Lion crew had to bottle some of the stuff straight from the barrel. According to Jamie, the new make was distilled at 68% using the pot still, with the final ABV dropping to 65% during bottling. 

Nose: A fresh, spicy ginger takes the main stage in aromas. There’s a mix of ginger flowers as well - a tropical, fiery grassy aroma. Underneath the spicy fresh ginger notes, there is that orangette aroma as well - but it leans toward dark chocolate instead. 

Palate: On the palate, the whisky is noticeably oilier. The sweetness of this whisky takes on a more brown sugar, molasses profile, with a touch of honey-nectar like floral character. There is also a peppery spice to the whisky.

 

Finish: The oily perception lingers, reminding me of buttery pie crust. The pepperiness (akin to white pepper) tapers off along with the ginger spice, and leaves a warming baking spice mix instead. The sweetness stays long on the palate as well, that reminds me of pumpkin pie.

My Rating

💪

A strong, punchy whisky fitting of its alcohol percentage. The older sibling of the two - if the 48% whisky was the fruity, jammy pie filling, this 65% cask strength is the pie crust. Compared to its fruitier, more bubbly sibling, this has a more grounded, malt and butter forward profile with a perceptible density.

 

Brass Lion Jasmine Pearl Tea Gin, 40% ABV — Review

A bonus tasting apart from the original trio (+ cask strength) - this gin was released for National Day. The jasmine pearl tea gin is inspired from the ubiquitous, everyone’s favourite bottled Jasmine Green tea. If Milo’s is to be crowned the unofficial national drink of Singapore, I’m sure the Jasmine Green tea is a very close second. 

The pearl tea comes from an actual tea making process, where jasmine flowers are mixed with dried tea leaves and rolled into pearls, hence the name.

Source: The Tea Spot

Nose: It’s shocking how similar it is to the Pokka Jasmine Green Tea. not only does it have the signature jasmine aroma, it also has that syrupy, sweetener like scent, and not in a bad way. 

Palate: The first sips of this gin gives off the similar profile on the nose - that sweet tea that has been infused with jasmine. There is also some aromas that I associate to rose water, with a subtle but piney juniper flavour that hangs at the back. 

 

Finish: The astrigency grows slowly on the gums and palate, quite similarly to drinking a strong brew of tea. The leftover plant flavours remind me of tie guan yin tea. 

My Rating

🪀

A blast from the past. Truly a very nostalgia-inspiring gin, and one that fondly reminds me of my childhood. It’s somewhat uncanny to have it brought back to live in a form of a gin now that I’m an adult, but hey, I’m not complaining!

 

Closing Thoughts:

There’s no other way to word it - for a trial of its sort since 2019, this whisky has been a labour of love. The four year project (not counting the years it took to conceptualise and set the brewing and distillation in motion) has accumulated to 427 500ml bottles - 70 of those being cask strength. We’ve truly been honoured to be invited down for this tasting, and I doubt this will be the last of Brass Lion’s foray in barrel aged spirits.

The sister duo, Jamie Koh and Amy Koh. Source: Brass Lion

For those looking to get a taste of this whisky, the Tasting Room will be serving drams of the whisky from 23 September to mid-October.  A limited number of bottles per day will also be made available for purchase on Brass Lion’s website from 9 September. The 500ml bottles are packaged in a motif that uses the topological lines around the distillery, highlighting the locality of where the whisky has been matured at.

Source: Brass Lion

In an exploration of Singapore - climate ageing of spirits, I think this is a great first step, with many more to come. Congratulations to Brass Lion on the whisky debut!

@vernoncelli