Mandai Foodlink is the last place you’d expect to find a distillery. The industrial estate, far removed from the rush of the city, can only be entered through a carpark swathed in uniform grey and charged by the buzz from motorcycles rushing in and out.
This is where Tanglin Gin resides, a micro-distillery that is the first to produce a truly made in Singapore gin. For a country with a thriving microbrewery and cocktail culture of its own, it still remains a marvel that it took this long for an indigenous distillery to surface. Yet, a look at the path that Tanglin Gin had to wrestle before its lone steel pot still could begin chugging is evidence enough for lauding the establishment as a pioneer in its own right.
Having a gin that is crafted here is monumental. Previous spirits that are identified with Singapore like Paper Lantern and Tippling Club’s Sons of Tippling gins are distilled abroad. The inception and execution of Tanglin Gin within our national confines is an opportunity for bars and drinkers to cast their eyes back to our city instead of constantly looking overseas for supply. It’s not just fuel for the pride that comes with an item being locally-made. Tanglin Gin represents a future where keen spirit producers here can step up to further populate our alcoholic arena, and stamp that space with a Singaporean presence.
A gin made from orchids
Tanglin Gin currently produces one signature expression — a gin that is an articulation of 11 different botanicals that represent the disparate cultures and ethnicities that define our city.
“We wanted to bottle the spirit of Singapore with Tanglin Gin,” said distiller Tim Whitefield, who hails from Australia.
That desire drove Whitefield to turn to unexpected ingredients in his quest to design Tanglin Gin. What he calls an “old world new gin” toys with the blueprint of the oldest recipe for the category, dating from the 1600s, with a slant that typifies our national diversity. Traditional botanicals like juniper, cassia, liquorice, cubeb berries, coriander seeds, orris and angelica roots still remain, but most of these ingredients are carefully sourced from plantations around the region, like Java, India and potentially, China instead of just Europe.
The pulse of the expression is orchid, an ingredient familiar to us, but rarely used in gin production. To be specific, Tanglin Gin is suffused with the dried stems of the dendrobium orchid, which Chinese Singaporeans will know as the immortality-giving shi hu, and vanilla pods sourced from the vanilla planifolia flower. Another Asian accent that makes the gin “new” is the inclusion of amchoor, a dried green mango powder.
Tanglin Gin is the only one in the world that uses amchoor and orchid in two different ways, though there two are others from Sweden and London that make gin with vanilla.
Together, the botanicals mould a gin that is bold in its herbaceousness. It is unlike any other gin we’ve had before; lightly sweetened with vanilla and liquorice, the libation is a creamy mouthful that welcomes a dash of tonic and a squeeze of orange for a citrusy lift.
Where it all began
Creating a liquor that is a matrix of local elements came to Whitefield on his first visit to Singapore. An afternoon at a smoky, hectic hawker centre tattooed itself into his memory, forming the inspiration for the drink that would eventually flow through his still.
“I stood there, looking at the diversity of cuisines housed in small three-by-three culinary wonders, and watched as dishes like fish-and-chips, Thai food, chicken rice and the like all came together on one table. The hawker centre is a melting pot of cultures. In that chaos was harmony, and when we first started talking about making a gin, I wanted to capture that chaotic spirit of Singapore.”
Working through bureaucratic barriers
Three other men operate the distillery with Whitefield. The gin-producing tango team includes fellow Australian and head of finance Chris Box, marketing chief Chris van Eeden from Holland, and Briton Andy Hodgson, who mans operations. All of them have day jobs in fields that parallel their position in Tanglin Gin, and this has helped surmount the challenges that have come with making Singapore’s inaugural gin.
Hodgson, in particular, has to communicate with governments across countries during his nine-to-five. His expertise has helped the quad negotiate the barriers set in place by the government before they set on their enterprise.
It took almost two years of work for Tanglin Gin to come to fruition, of which a year was spent working closely with the local institutions to understand what exactly having a gin distillery in Singapore entails.
“When we approached [the government], they gave us all these rules and guides to opening a microbrewery. What were we supposed to do with those regulations? They weren’t relevant. So we worked with a process where there were barely any guidelines, and we had to help them through the process of comprehending what Tanglin Gin was going to be,” said Whitefield.
A future for Tanglin Gin in the city
Even with that collaborative atmosphere, there were some areas where compromise was futile. The clearest reflection of that is the distillery’s location amidst the food factories in Mandai. When the team applied for their license, they were told that gin qualifies as food, and so had to be produced in a designated food zone on the island.
Being planted next to a crispy fish skin producer and a halal-certified caterer is not the quarters Tanglin Gin set out to occupy, but Whitefield believes it is a charming reflection of the cross-cultural product they create.
Still, they hope to be relocated to the city centre, with the old Zouk warehouse as an ideal. The Jiak Kim location has been purchased for conversion by Fraser Centrepoint Limited, and the team hopes to be in talks with the developers of the upcoming property to have the Tanglin Gin factory integrated within. Citing the connection to the Singapore River and local heritage as a major draw, Whitefield also believes that a distillery in Clarke Quay will appeal to tourists.
A refreshed location is the ultimate long game. For now, the makers are trying to root their pieces on the chessboard. Whitefield eventually hopes to buy another still to ramp up their production capacity from 45,000 bottles a year. The added equipment could potentially be used to make another flavour currently in its testing phase — a mandarin orange and chilli gin.
“We have already connected ourselves to Singapore with the orchid gin, and later, the mandarin chilli, but the recipes I aim to develop will bring Tanglin Gin beyond its ties to local flavours,” shares Whitefield. “If all goes well, we want to be the definition of good quality gin — one made in Singapore.”
A bottle of Tanglin Gin retails for $108, available here. The distillery is not currently open to public.