It has been a long time coming, but well worth the wait is the first made-in-Singapore single grain whiskey, set to make its public debut come Nov 15, 2021.
Local distillery Compendium and its founder and head distiller Simon Zhao, originally from China, is the one behind this major milestone for Singapore’s craft spirits industry, producing a no-age-statement Rice Whiskey that is in all regards, the first locally-made whiskey to hit store shelves.
The distinction of single grain is being put forward by the producer, as Singapore’s first single malt whisky, produced by Brass Lion Distillery, is already in the midst of being aged, but has yet to hit the market.
The difference between single malt and single grain is that the former is made using only malted barley, while the latter can be made from any grain, even a mix of grains. Both must be produced entirely by a single distillery.
Compendium’s Rice Whiskey thus fits the bill (pun intended) for being both Singapore’s first whisky, as well as the first single grain whiskey, to be made in Singapore. Compendium also prefers calling it ‘whiskey’ as opposed to ‘whisky’, as a way to point out that they are not following Scotch traditions, but rather, forging a new way of doing things, as the US have done with Bourbon and Rye.
Definitions and semantics aside, it is the fact that the entire production process – from mashing to fermenting, distilling to ageing – is all done locally, that makes the Rice Whiskey a first of its kind.
In line with Compendium’s region-forward ethos when it comes to sourcing for ingredients, the Rice Whiskey is made entirely using hom mali grains sourced from Thailand. Bottled at 40% ABV, a cask strength version at 68% ABV is also being released at the same time.
We had a chat with Zhao himself and found out from him how he managed this massive undertaking, why he decided on using rice grains to produce whiskey, and just how different a Singapore-made whisky is supposed to be.
Congratulations on the launch of your whiskey. How do you feel about being the first local distillery to launch a Singapore-made whiskey in the market?
Excited! Feels like I have just opened Pandora’s Box. (laughs)
Why do you think there hasn’t been a whisky genuinely made in Singapore until now?
Traditionally, whisky is made from malted barley or corn. However, these two crops are not produced here in Southeast Asia. As readily accessible raw material is very crucial to the production of whisky, there has not been any whisky producer here in the past.
Technically, whisky is also not easy to make. I always believe the alcohol industry is knowledge intensive. It took the major producers a few hundred years to accumulate the knowledge that enabled them to be where they are now. Certainly, a lot of effort will be needed to make a genuinely made-in-Singapore whisky.
In your own words and opinion, what defines a whisky as being Singapore-made?
It needs to be made in Singapore. But most importantly, I feel it needs to have a core that we can relate Singapore to, like a soul. As a whisky, it first needs to have the components that we inherit from the traditions, both historically and scientifically. Like it needs to be made from grains of agricultural origin, and it needs to be fermented and distilled from basic raw materials.
Secondly, as Singapore is very different from traditional whisky-producing countries, to make a Singapore whiskey, further adaptations and improvisations need to be made. Like adjusting to the availability of raw materials, to the difference in temperature and humidity, among other things.
Lastly, to be proudly called Singapore-made, a unique Singapore identity has to be there. There’s no point in simply copying and pasting what other whisky producers are doing. I always believe that when it comes to innovation, we can do much better.
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Your Rice Whiskey is very unlike the usual whiskies on the market, especially since the mash bill comprises 100% hom mali rice grains. What made you choose to make whisky using this as the raw ingredient?
It’s been a pretty long journey. Since the start of Compendium, the idea of making a Singapore whisky has been at the back of my mind. It kind of shaped our journey. I first experimented on prototypes using malted barley, and managed to obtain some pretty decent versions. However, the feeling just was not right, the Singapore identity was not there.
To gain a better understanding of the history and science behind whisky, I managed to obtain some unmalted barley and corn, and started malting them here in Singapore. The results were very interesting, and provided me with brand new inspiration. Scotland uses barley to make whisky, and the US uses corn, as these ingredients are widely available there. If whisky is to be originated from Southeast Asia, then it certainly won’t be made from barley or corn.
Thus, I started experimenting with rice, the crop that’s more native to our land, our culture and our palates. I used various varieties of rice, with various methods and processes. It’s like exploring an uncharted territory. The more I experiment, the more insights I discover, and the closer I get to the Singapore whisky I want to make.
When the time came to use hom mali grains, I was very amazed and excited with its outcome. It was oaky, it was caramel, like the whiskies made from barley, but it also has a unique sweetness and fragrance from the rice that tasted naturally familiar. I knew then that hom mali will be used in the first whiskey I release.
Tell me a little about your distillation process. How does the rice go from grain to bottle?
The rice is first steamed, then transferred into a specially designed mash tun for mashing. This process converts the starch from the rice into simple fermentable sugar. The rice wash is then separated from the spent rice by filtration and pressing.
A dedicated yeast is then added to ferment the wash into low-alcohol rice wine. After fermentation has completed, the rice wine is then transferred into our pot still, and distilled into a new make at 68% ABV. It is then aged in oak barrels for maturation, before finally arriving at dilution and bottling.
What type of casks do you use to age your new make, and why?
The casks we used are mostly virgin casks, custom made in Spain, using American oak. The reason why we use virgin casks is because, though second-hand casks like ex-sherry or ex-bourbon casks are more sought after by other distillers for their pre-infused flavours, we believe in making our own unique flavours instead. With the various spirit bases we produce in-house, and the unique permutation of sequences we can arrange ourselves, we aim to produce spirits with flavours that can truly represent the region and us.
We have selected this cooperage to work with not only because they have many years of experience in barrel making, but also because they still rely largely on manual production techniques. We see it as reflecting how we manually ferment and distill all our spirits. We both share the same set of values in craftsmanship.
Ageing is a big part of whisky making. The effects of tropical ageing, smaller barrel sizes, and higher barrel proof has surely accelerated the speed at which the whisky ages in Singapore. How have these factors affected your process and judgement when producing your whisky here?
You are very right. These indeed are the key factors that affect the aging process here. The extent of how these factors change the process of ageing actually can be derived scientifically, and as it turns out, it matches quite well with empirical evidence.
Ageing generally is a chemical process. An increase in temperature will increase the rate of reaction. Ageing in Taiwan is about three times faster than in Scotland. By comparing the average temperatures in Scotland, Taiwan and Singapore, the rate of ageing in Singapore can be extrapolated.
The chemical process in ageing largely takes place on the surface where the oak is in contact with the spirit. Smaller barrels have much higher surface-to-volume ratio than bigger barrels. Thus, the rate of reaction will be higher. Like temperature, the extent of this can be extrapolated too. The same methodology applies to the higher barrel proof.
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Traditional whisky enthusiasts pursue hallmarks such as age statements, single malt styles, provenance, and legacy of the brand. As a craft distiller, what do you say to that, considering your whisky is defying those long-held notions?
In the past, information was not so readily available, and many techniques are considered trade secrets, and so are not easily revealed. Thus, associating quality with these long-held notions like age statement and single malt styles, is an easier way to differentiate between the various types of whiskies.
With information widely available nowadays, as long as distillers are willing to put in the effort, they can be much more educated and well-trained, and thus have a better understanding of the science behind distillation, and hence, enabling them to create better products in more innovative ways. In the end, science does not lie and quality speaks for itself.
What are some main differences in taste people should expect from a whisky made from rice, compared to those made from malted barley or other grains?
Hom mali has a smooth, or rather mild start, but a fairly long and lingering finish. It is an interesting experience that grows on you the more you sip on it. I hope people can find the flavours of the Rice Whiskey naturally familiar just as I did.
Why are you also launching a cask strength version of your Rice Whiskey?
I once tasted a cask strength whiskey, and the experience completely changed my understanding. The flavours were so much more intense than the normal strength ones. Thus, I have decided to launch the unadulterated cask strength version too, for the more experienced drinkers out there who wish to explore and appreciate the undiluted taste of hom mali.
Compendium’s Rice Whiskey is available on their online store.
About the Author
Dannon Har is the Managing Editor of Spill. Discovering his innate gift for drinking only at a ripe age, he spares no time trying to find more delicious drops to imbibe during his time on Earth. When he’s not minding every detail at Spill, he spends his time concocting luscious libations and sharing them with folks that visit his home bar.