We The People is a column commemorating Singapore’s independence and the people who are working towards making our country an even better place. In it, we speak to a diverse slate of personalities, from environmentalists and entrepreneurs to trailblazing creatives for their vision of society. These are the voices that make Singapore home.
From a little corner in the Sungei Kadut industrial estate, Simon Zhao lords over Singapore’s spirits industry. His Compendium Spirits brand ferments and distills their own base from a variety of regional ingredients to create distinctly Southeast Asian gins, vodka, rums, and whiskeys. It also offers a bespoke barrel-ageing programme that lets consumers create their own whisky and rum, which Compendium describes as “the first in the world.”
These are steps that most local distillers do not take, and as a leading producer in the country’s nascent spirits landscape, it’s already an achievement for Compendium to be so comprehensive. But Zhao believes we can do more than just follow traditions. We talk to him on the challenges of being a Singapore distiller, why we should be more inclusive, and his desire to see more innovation.
What was the spirits industry like when you started, and how has it changed?
There was no industry back then. When we applied for our license, the officers didn’t know what we are doing. We had to educate them. But this has changed. There are now licenses for a micro distillery and a full-scale distillery. So we feel the government is showing support for small distilleries by providing a more versatile plan.
You use regional ingredients but chose to base Compendium in Singapore. Why?
Singapore is the best place because it’s at the centre of Southeast Asia. It’s so diverse. We get ingredients like molasses from Malaysia, gula Melaka from Indonesia, and rice and honey from Thailand. Our flavours are also influenced by local dishes, which can also be found regionally. Our Rojak and Chendol gins, for example, resonate with people in Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. We hope this binds the region together.
You also adapt your ageing process to Singapore’s conditions. Why is this necessary?
We have this unique tropical weather and what it brings to the spirits. Because of the temperature difference, we can speed up the ageing process in a much faster rate than the people in Scotland. For example, I have an ex-honey cask whiskey that has been ageing for two months, and the flavours are already very complex. But because the spirit evaporates at a much faster rate than Scotland – our angel’s share here is around 10 percent – we have to slow it down by wrapping the barrel in cling wrap. Over-ageing can be as bad as under-ageing.
As a distiller today, what challenges do you face?
Education, mainly. Singapore is not really known for its spirits producing industry. Even now, we occupy a very small portion of the consumer market here. So a lot of time it’s about explaining what we do and why we do things differently from the bigger producers. For example, Japan has a guideline for their whiskies, and one of the clauses say that caramel colouring can be used. This shows the use of artificial colourings is very common in the industry. But we try to create flavours and colours in the most natural way. Most people here and in other parts of the world do not know this, and we try to convey the message through education.
I would think that local drinkers automatically connect with your products because it’s flavours that they’re familiar with.
Yes, but some of our raw ingredients are strange to them. For most spirit producers, they use base ingredients like whey, corn, or barley. We distill our arrack from coconut sap, and the only other producer I know that does a similar product is from Sri Lanka. Some Japanese whisky producers add rice to their grain bill, but we do a single grain rice whiskey. We distill honey too, and ageing turns it into something very much like brandy. We also experiment with blending different spirits together in the barrel.
Pulling back a little bit and looking at the bigger picture, some spirits producers here call themselves local, but the product is manufactured somewhere else. Only the brand is based here. How do you feel about that?
A local spirit has to relate to Singapore, but it doesn’t necessarily has be produced here. As long as they can find something that you can attach to Singapore, like if they use botanicals from here, or if they can create a flavour that relates to local culture, then it should be called a Singapore spirit. Our industry is still at the beginning stage. Being a diverse society, inclusion is much better than exclusion. Otherwise, how can we grow the industry together?
How else can the industry grow?
I think we can be more innovative. We are not a traditional spirits-producing country, and we don’t have to follow what other people are doing. It’s essential to understand what they do and why they do things a certain way, but we have to improvise. Our resources are different. Our weather is different. In whiskies, for example, Scotland uses barley because they have an abundant supply of it. When it shifted over to America, it became corn. We don’t have much barley and corn, but we have a lot of rice. If whiskey is going to come from this region, then naturally it should be from rice.
What is your vision for Singapore?
We want to put Singapore on a world map with the flavours we create. Singapore is already on the world map for many, many reasons. We want its spirits to be looked at the same way.