Vodka is undergoing a rebirth. Often neglected as the less refined of the six traditional spirits, this crystalline liquor is a mainstay in cocktails and at parties, but rarely enjoyed neat or on the rocks the way one would with whisky, or even gin. Craft distillers from Europe and America are attempting to steadily change that stereotype, releasing artisanal vodkas that prioritise a smooth, clean-tasting profile that’s a far cry from the astringent bite capable of stripping paint that we’ve come to expect from the category. Singapore, more broadly, Asia, has not yet embraced the creation and appreciation of vodkas the way it has with gins until The Orientalist Spirits entered the scene.
Whispers that Singapore would soon have a new distillery tagged as The Orientalist Spirits were circulating around social media for a few months before confirmation by its owner Michel Lu. Lu is a known entrepreneur in Asia, having worked with companies like The Privé Group and running his own events management company, Bulletproof. A trip to Shangri-La in Tibet and an encounter with the rich ecosystem of botanicals there inspired The Orientalist Spirits, which recently soft-launched its signature vodka at a private event in Cut by Wolfgang Puck.
The vodka is the first locally-made expression of its kind but also counts itself as a pioneering Pan-Asian spirit. The ingredients that go into it are sourced from a wide spread of countries on our regional map, beginning with qingke, a type of Tibetan highland barley, nine types of potatoes, organic longan honey, and pristine Japanese water from Kagoshima. The Orientalist aims to set up outposts as close as possible to its raw material, so it currently operates distilleries in Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Tibet, with plans to further expand. This ambitious vision is compounded by The Orientalist Spirits eventual goal — to produce Asian versions not just vodka, but gin as well.
Lu’s lofty goals warrant admiration, but the truth lies in taste for any new spirit entering a market as competitive and discerning as Singapore’s. We were one of the few who got to sample The Orientalist Vodka before its debut in select bars islandwide at the soft launch, and it is unlike any vodka we’ve ever sampled.
Craft vodkas are typically pure and rounded on the tongue, with kisses of the starch or grain it is made from. The Orientalist vodka has a pronounced sweetness and a floral breath derived from the longan honey, and that forgiving profile makes it enjoyable enough to drink on the rocks, even for the most ardent vodka detractor. A very promising start.
To get into the thick of how The Orientalist Spirits and its initial vodka will enhance Asia’s liquor scene, we speak to Michel Lu.
Well, my personal perspective is that in order to do a great gin, you need to get your fundamentals right and that fundamental is first making a great vodka. And as they say, “the simplest things are the hardest” and with vodka, it is such a ’simple’ product that every single element needs to be done well otherwise it won’t shine.
The Orientalist Origins vodka is designed to be drunk neat, on the rocks or as a martini so it is laid bare, naked and exposed, not camouflaged by juices or other ingredients. The basic idea is that if it can shine on its own, it will be even better with mixers or in a cocktail.
Our vodka is designed to have its own personality and character. It is a distinctively Asian vodka, with the light herbal notes from the Tibetan highland barley base, as well as the floral notes and trace of sweetness from the organic longan honey.
I feel that this vodka will appeal to a wide audience but particularly to people who are looking for individuality in their lifestyle choices. It appeals to leaders and people willing to explore bold tastes.
Only about 5 percent of all vodkas in the world are made with potatoes as a base and the ingredient is generally considered to produce the most premium vodkas with the best mouthfeel. For me, that for me was critical. The potato component, alongside the longan honey is what makes the vodka extremely smooth while the barley ‘lifts’ the spirit a little with its herbaceousness.
Actually, we will not just be distilling and producing in four locations but perhaps even more. The Orientalist is the first of multiple brands under my holding company Liquid Assets and we are very focused on bringing the best of Asia to the world, so we are exploring various opportunities now.
There are many reasons to be based in Singapore but clearly there as probably just as many reasons to distil and produce in locations like Shangri-La, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and even Myanmar, or Indonesia.
Our gin will be launched later this year and is called The Orientalist Gunpowder Gin as one of the key botanicals is a tea from Taiwan called gunpowder tea.
The Orientalist is likely to remain a vodka and gin brand. However, we are launching other brands, even in the vodka and gin space, though these will occupy separate market segments in the near future.
Yes, we are launching a new brand of blended whisky that is one of the first “world whiskies” similar to the recently launched Ao world whisky from Beam Suntory that features liquid from distilleries located in the five largest whisky-making regions around the world.