Features

Jamie Koh: Running a restaurant takes a lot more than just loving food

Koh has been in F&B for about a decade now, and, like many industry veterans, has had her fair share of rejections before being able to carve out a space for her vision

Photos from Brass Lion Distillery (Jamie Koh) and Singapore Tourism Board (cocktail)

Last year, the multi-concept craft spirits distillery Brass Lion Distillery—the first of its kind—opened in Singapore. Complete with a tasting room, a research and development lab, and an herb garden, the 370-sqm space is the brainchild of Jamie Koh, who is also the owner of Chupitos Shots Bar and The Beast Southern Kitchen + Bourbon Bar. Koh has been in F&B for about a decade now, and, like many industry veterans, has had her fair share of rejections before being able to carve out a space for her vision. 

Though fairly young, Brass Lion Distillery now stands as one of the more interesting concepts in the Singaporean beverage scene not just because of its scope and ambition, but, perhaps more importantly, for having created what is set to become the country’s signature gin. We got to sit down and talk to Koh about distilleries, what makes a good bar, and some pieces of advice for the aspiring beverage entrepreneur. 

Tell us about how you got into the industry.

About 10 years ago, I won a competition for startups—the best concept was given a space in which they could open shop. So I started my first bar, Chupitos, this shots bar in Clarke Quay, and then after that I also went on to open a Southern comfort food restaurant called The Beast, where we did a lot of American whiskeys and ryes.

How did you get into distilling?

In 2012, I had the idea of opening a distillery and creating a local spirit because I realized that there were no local spirits. I had to learn a lot of things so I went to distilling schools and did several internships around the world. I went to the US and the UK, and in Germany as well. I was knocking on doors, asking people to take me on. I was willing to work for free just so I can learn about distilling. After that I  developed a recipe, and then came back [to Singapore] with the first standalone distillery. So now I have three establishments. 

Before we talk about these establishments, tell us more about these internships. How do you think they helped you become the entrepreneur that you are now?

I think being rejected a million times had a lot to do with it. I learned that if you sit back and write e-mails and wait for things to happen, nothing’s going to happen. I had to go out there, figure things out, and make the right connections. I worked in really old distilleries, ones in the middle of farms with animals and fireworks. I also got to work in ultramodern distilleries—these industrial, big-scale distilleries. Getting to see the breadth and the depth of everything in distilling helped me see what I wanted to do in my own distillery.  

Tell us about Brass Lion Distillery. How is this concept different from your first ones?

With Brass Lion, we wanted to move up the value chain into manufacturing. Even though it’s all still within F&B, a lot of things are new to us especially because running a distillery and running a restaurant and bars are completely different. For Brass Lion, we really focus on manufacturing. We do B2B sales, so we have to supply to different bars and hotels. We also do B2C: We have a tasting room, we also sell through e-commerce, online, and we also do tours and workshops and masterclasses. It’s a lot of things going on at the same time, so I guess the main difference is that there are a lot more components than a typical F&B outlet.

“A lot of people get into the industry because they like food. They think: ‘I like food, I like to entertain—I should be in the scene, I should open a restaurant.’ But it takes grit, hard work, determination, it takes long hours. And it requires a lot of skillsets that go beyond cooking and operations.”

The idea for Brass Lion came to you in 2012, but it opened just last year. Why did it take six years to establish it?

It was mostly because nothing like it has ever been done in Singapore. Dealing with something of this scale required working with different agencies, so naturally they were very unfamiliar with the concept. We had to work closely with these groups—we had to explain the concept to them so that they really understood what we wanted to create. Because there were no existing guidelines on how a multi-concept distillery works, we had to make up the guidelines together with these agencies. That’s why it took so long. It was crazy, I never want to go through that again.

What do you think makes a good bar? What makes a good drinking scene?

For me, it’s all about the attention to details. When you walk into a place you might feel instantly at home, and you think it’s very simple: there are drinks, there’s music. But actually there’s a lot that goes into it that guests don’t think about. The way the place smells, the toilets, the cleanliness of the place and everything in the bar—from the coasters to the glasses, they all feed into the guest’s experience. 

Nonya confession, a cocktail made with Brass Lion Distillery’s dry gin

What’s the one thing people who are hesitant about trying gin out should know about gin?

They don’t need to be scared of it. Some people have a poor impression of it because before they even try it, they have this pre-conceived notion of what gin is. But gins are very different around the world; there are different flavor profiles. Some people don’t like gin because of the heavy juniper flavor, which not all gins necessarily have, so I would say to them just try different gins first. Even our three impressions—they’re all very different. Don’t shut it out before even trying it.

You’ve been in the industry for a while now. Can you offer some advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?

A lot of people get into the industry because they like food. They think: ‘I like food, I like to entertain—I should be in the scene, I should open a restaurant.’ But being able to run a restaurant takes a lot more than that. It takes grit, hard work, determination, it takes long hours. And it requires a lot of skillsets that go beyond cooking and operations—like for example, managing staff, being a good leader, figuring out how to market and position your brand; there’s financing, accounting. There are so many things that go into running a successful F&B establishment. People fall into the trap of the I-like-to-eat-so-I-should-open-a-restaurant mindset. My advice is to not fall into that trap. Put yourself out there, learn to deal with uncertainties, make the right connections, and work at different skillsets.

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