She plays football and supports Manchester United, but it is in the Theatre of Drinks that she has scored – against older and far more experienced opposition, by being different.
Meet Jamie Koh, founder of Brass Lion Distillery, who, a decade ago when she was just 24, won an award from Martell VSOP to start a food and beverage business at Clarke Quay. That enterprise, a shooters bar called Chupitos, has thrived long beyond the six months of free rent that was part of the prize and has outlasted an industry veteran who was dead certain she would fail once she started having to pay the rent.
Determined to prove her detractor wrong
“One of my friends offered to introduce me to owners of bars in Clarke Quay so I could talk to them and and learn from them,” she tells D:Code. At one such meeting, there was this operator, more than twice her age, who scoffed when she told him she was there to ask for advice.
“He said, ‘What do you know? You’re so young, after your six months of free rent, you are going to fail.’
“I was, like, that is why I am here, to learn, and he said, ‘What do you know? Do you know the clientele? Do you know the market? You will fail in six months’,” she adds.
It couldn’t have been a pleasant experience for a young woman who had beaten a field of about 200 contestants, and whose only crime was that she had been humble enough to approach someone a lot older and more experienced for advice.
But instead of leaving the meeting hurt and bitter, she remained calm, determined to prove him wrong.
“I don’t know the clientele? The clientele are more my age, they are not your age,” she says in an echo of an exchange she probably did not have with the old nightlife boss.
“So I was pretty convinced that I could prove him wrong,” she says.
The tables were turned several years later when she received a call from him.
“He got my number from Clarke Quay’s management and called to ask who was doing my marketing because he was thinking of engaging the same agency,” she explains. She couldn’t help him, though, but by no means because she was being mean-spirited.
“I had to explain that we did our marketing in-house,” says Jamie
“Maybe he forgot what he had said to me before,” she adds, though she never forgot what he said to her.
“His words always stayed with me. Even until now, I still remember them,” she says. “I was already determined to succeed in this business, and his words at that meeting became fuel.”
Today, the old operator’s outlet has closed down, whereas Chupitos remains very much in business. But it was a struggle at first, also because of older people.
Her leadership style
One of the initial challenges was getting her managers – who were typically about a decade older than she was – to grasp the concept of a shots bar.
“We were trying to do things differently, to disrupt the industry. There were no shots bars then, there wasn’t a shots culture, and that was something we were trying to push,” she says.
However, the managers she hired, though experienced, were accustomed only to a tradition of bottle service or beer towers.
“That business model could not work in Chupitos because we had only two tables. We needed a quick turnover, but the managers could not see the concept we were trying to push and never recognised its potential as their mindsets were fixed.
“They also found it hard to take directions from someone 10 years younger, and a female. It came to a point where I would go, this is what I say, go and do it, which didn’t always work very well.”
So instead of trying to get older, experienced managers who were resistant to trying new things, she decided to hire younger workers who had the interest and potential, and groom them instead.
It has taken a lot more time and effort, but it is a strategy that seems to be working for her.
“We had an assistant bartender whom I eventually groomed to become a manager. He was interested in marketing, in simple design work, social media, talking to suppliers and leading the team. So I gave him the training he needed and groomed him all the way for seven years.
“It is hard to find good people who are in it for the long haul in this industry but when you find them you keep them, groom them and try to keep them interested and excited, which means giving them the flexibility and letting them learn whatever they are keen on or interested in,” she adds.
Her leadership style has evolved over the years, too.
“When I started out, those working for me were my peers, they were about the same age as me so we had to build a camaraderie, like, everyone is in it together, whereas now I feel I need to take a step back because I have a bigger team.
“It allows my managers to shine as well,” she explains. It also empowers them to operate to the best of their capabilities so they feel they have the authority to lead the people under them.
Motivating staff, too, has always been a big concern.
“Money is important but it may not be the key motivator. They have to be paid well – we pay above market rate anyway – but that just fulfils the basic requirements. However, if a person’s not happy, they’re not happy, no matter how much money you throw at them.
“We think of other ways of motivating them – whether it’s their sense that there’s career progression, or whether it’s ensuring that the company culture is happy and healthy.
“There will always be things that happen, right? It’s how we resolve them, how we make sure that everyone moves forward in the same direction as a team. And then we do things for the staff like New Year parties or gatherings,” she explains.
When she was running just one outlet, she’d take her staff out to party since she was heading out to do so, too, anyway. She’d also take them on overseas trips such as Australia, among other places. And there are also various incentive schemes to keep her workers happy.
The gin beginning
But her entrepreneurial success wasn’t achieved only by keeping her staff happy. Her latest venture – Brass Lion Distillery, which currently produces three expressions of gin – the Singapore Dry Gin, the Butterfly Pea Gin and the Pahit Gin – was because she felt there was a gap in the market.
“There was no Singaporean-made spirits, and gin was a natural first thing to launch because with gin, it is kind of like cooking – you have all these botanicals that you can play with, you can have as few as three or as many as 100 if you’re crazy, but it is basically using all these botanicals that we feel are not used typically in gin that are native to Singapore and interesting,” she explains.
“But we never set out to do only gin. So when we customised our still, we made provisions for the equipment to make other products, such as rum and whisky.”
And a Singapore whisky is already in the making.
“The whisky thing kind of fell into place – I engaged a guy who was interested in being a part of this, and also the beer guys who had the bandwidth. We were also bringing in the cask for our barrel-aged gin, so we started working on distilling the whisky for about a week.
“I think as an entrepreneur I always like to try new things, and I have ideas. So for me, whisky is something we can do so I thought, let’s just do it.”
How the spirit will react within the cask in Singapore’s climate is something nobody knows because it has never been done before, says Jamie.
“There will be a higher Angels’ Share (the amount of alcohol that evaporates while the whisky ages in the cask), but we don’t know how long it will be before it takes on the flavour of the cask, so we will be trying it in a couple of months,” she explains.
Whereas in Scotland, a spirit needs to be aged for three years before it can be called a Scotch whisky, there’s no such standard in Singapore.
“We don’t have an industry and we have no guidelines, but realistically, we would not let it age for less than three years,” explains Jamie.
“I’ve told people who asked that we will release it when we like it. So if we think it could be better after three years, we would leave it in the cask.
“It is a Singapore whisky for which we have not yet come up with a name, but we have some years before we need to worry about that.”
Her journey to becoming a distillery boss took six years. While she knew as a consumer that juniper was a main ingredient, she had to go to the US to learn the process of distilling gin.
Her learning journey
“There was nobody to teach me that in Singapore, so in 2012, I went to the US to learn it. But it was just theory, and I needed hands-on experience,” she says. So she wrote to distilleries all over the US, asking to be an apprentice or an intern for no payment. She had very few replies, all of which were in the negative.
Finally, some friends from the industry hooked her up with a distillery in Charleston, South Carolina. Her experience in the US, though, was only in a micro-distillery and she felt she needed to learn the traditional way of producing gin. So she headed to Germany’s Black Forest – with no contacts and no knowledge of German – and began knocking on doors at the famous Schnapps Trail.
There, she met a community of distillers – families of farmers – who introduced her to a master distiller with whom she would develop her own gin.
“By 2015, we were quite confident we could develop the recipe, so we brought the botanicals to Germany because we couldn’t distill gin in Singapore as we weren’t licensed to do so yet.”
And licensing in Singapore was a labyrinth of processes which took all of three years.
“I even wondered if it would be better to produce it somewhere else and bring it back in, but I felt that if we were going to be a Singaporean product, it has to be produced in Singapore. And if I was going to produce it here, I wanted it to be in a space where Singaporeans would come, and not just a purely manufacturing facility.
“I wanted this space to be where people would come and we would be very transparent about our processes, to show you how we make our gin so you understand it.
“So we have this school where you can make your own gin, we have workshops where you can learn how to make gin cocktails, and of course there are tours of the facility so it is about increasing awareness about this craft at our brand home. Which is why we had to be in Singapore and why we had to have this space,” she says.
At her own steady pace
“Just having this space set us back by about two years because the licensing was not so straightforward. If we had wanted it to be just a manufacturing space then it would have been simpler,” she explains.
“This year, we plan to expand out of Singapore and when that happens we definitely need to ramp up our manufacturing facility,” she reveals. “We will need to look at automation. Right now it is very manual – we have 20,000 bottles in storage but we wash our bottles two by two – we invert them, we wash them, then we go to the next row and we dry them, so it’s a very manual process. And to fill them we load four bottles at a time, we hand cork them and then we write the labels and label the bottles by hand. It’s all very manual.”
However, it is is deliberate.
“It is about growing at the right pace, and in the right time,” she insists.
The reception to Brass Lion gin has been mainly positive.
“People are responding more favourably to Singapore brands now, and the support isn’t just verbal. We feel it – the bars are interested, the hotels are interested, they do carry our products and they try to promote it. It’s heartening to see this. So the challenge for us now is how far we can build the brand within Singapore and how this can translate globally,” she says.
While Chupitos was her maiden effort as an entrepreneur and Brass Lion Distillery was the culmination of six years of perseverance which began in 2012, she also has another F&B outlet – The Beast Southern Kitchen and Bourbon Bar – which, in her own words, “serves uncomplicated and unpretentious food made with love”.
“After Chupitos, I felt I had to start something different – Southern comfort food, because I studied business – finance and management in Atlanta, Georgia – so I wanted to bring a slice of the South to Singapore. Also, an American whiskey bar because everybody knows Scotch and Japanese whiskies but not too many people are familiar with American whiskeys,” she explains.
Indeed, explaining and educating the market is something Jamie appears to love doing – from pushing the concept of a shots bar with her first outlet, Chupitos, to picking American whiskeys which aren’t as popular as Scotch or Japanese whiskies in her second, The Beast, and of course, to extolling the pleasures of a Singapore-made gin at the Brass Lion Distillery.
“We have to do something different,” she explains, again. “What fun would there be in replicating a concept that already works?”