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Barrel and bottle your own alcohol using Southeast Asian ingredients at local distillery Compendium Spirits

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin5/4/2022 10:15 AM GMT+08  • 9 min read
Barrel and bottle your own alcohol using Southeast Asian ingredients at local distillery Compendium Spirits
Zhao: From the very beginning, our ethos has always been to showcase our Asian roots and focus on keeping everything 100% natural and self-made with no artificial flavourings or colourings
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If you have harboured dreams of creating and bottling your own rum or whiskey, you can now do so at Compendium Spirits which offers a barrel ageing programme that gives customers closer look at how spirits are created from start to end.

The local distillery is the brainchild of founder and master distiller 37-year-old Simon Zhao who started home-brewing as a hobby in 2008, while holding down a day job supplying uniforms to the Singapore Police Force and Civil Defence Force.

Armed with a chemical and biomolecular engineering degree from National University of Singapore, he pursued his passion in spirit formulation by fermenting various garden-variety ingredients at home until he found his winning spirit — mead. “I was trying to brew different kinds of things like rice wine and beer, and even got grapes from the supermarket to make wine but they turned out quite horrible,” he laughs.

“It’s during that period of time I discovered how to make mead — a type of honeyed wine — by fermenting water and honey. I shared it with my friends and clients and they loved it, so that’s when I decided to commercialise it and start my own meadery,” says the permanent resident who came from China more than 25 years ago.

In 2016, Zhao and his wife Joey Wang founded Rachelle The Rabbit Meadery — Singapore’s first and only place where mead is made and sold commercially — named after their six-year-old daughter. “The main reason why I started Rachelle the Rabbit Meadery is so that I can brew one flavour of mead each year, so that by the time my daughter Rachelle gets married, she will have a whole collection as a wedding gift. This was inspired by the Chinese tradition of burying osmanthus wine under a tree and dug up years later to serve at the wedding banquet.”

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Just like vintage wine, mead can keep in the fridge for up to 20 years — long enough for Zhao to wait for his daughter to tie the knot. He also loves the historic story of mead. Not only is it one of the oldest alcohols in the world drunk by the Vikings, it is also the inspiration behind the word “honeymoon” where newlyweds would get at least a month’s supply of honey wine.

As the country’s only mead brewer, Zhao creates unique concoctions with an Asian twist by adding ingredients distinctive of the region. Herbs and spices like nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and dried fruits are added during the primary fermentation process before the wine is left to develop in steel barrels for at least a year. The brewing process, says Zhao, is similar to making natural wines, with as little intervention as possible. “We try as far as possible to present our mead in its most natural and organic form rich with minerals, enzymes, vita- mins and antioxidants.”

“I’ve experimented with over 30 flavours over the years. It can have different flavour profiles ranging from dry to sweet. I hope that more people come to know about this wonderful drink.”

Relocating and rebranding

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In 2018, Zhao relocated his production facility from Tuas to Mandai Foodlink, occupying a cosy 200 sqm space that houses fermentation tanks, distillation pot stills, a cellar, small bar and tasting room.

Through his journey with mead, he also discovered that mead can also be distilled and used to make other spirits. “Nobody knew what mead would taste after it’s distilled so I gave it a try and it turned out to be quite interesting. It was very smooth and had floral notes derived from honey itself. That gave me the idea that, in addition to the mead that we’re selling, I wanted to introduce the distilled version of mead as well. But since there’s no particular category for it, the best way was to turn it into a gin,” he says.

In the process, Zhao started experimenting with a bounty of other Asian-inspired ingredients and turning them into a variety of spirits from rum to arrack, whiskey and various gins. By 2019, he was creating so much more than mead and felt that its current brand name did not fully describe the nature of his business anymore. And that was how Compendium Spirits was born.

“Compendium is the name of fine things that encompasses the fine spirits and meads produced in-house. One of the things we are promoting is a diversity of spirits as well as culture. That’s why our tag line is, ‘distilling diversities’,” he explains. To mark the rebranding, Zhao collaborated with bartender Vic Ram to launch flagship Singaporean spirits like Rojak Gin and Cendol Gin.

More accurately referred to as a flavour company, Compendium today carries a wide variety of Asian-themed whiskies, gins, rums, soju, vodka, arrack and liqueurs, including Rachelle honey meads. Last year, Zhao introduced Singapore’s first single grain whiskey made from Thai Hom Mali rice which was three years in the making.

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“Every batch of spirits undergoes a stringent and laborious process of brewing, fermentation, distillation and selective ageing at our production facility in Singapore. This allows us to upkeep quality control of each production variable and maintain end-to-end consistency. While the process is demanding and tedious, the results are rewarding for us and our customers.”

Homage to Southeast Asia

Part of Compendium’s allure, aside from being the only homegrown facility to churn out so many spirit variants, is that it also creates its own base spirits too. Unlike most distilleries around the world, Compendium shuns the use of commercially-available neutral grain spirits (NGS) — the base spirit used to make alcohol — in favour of making its own to showcase the beauty of Asian ingredients.

The four main base spirits, which form the building blocks at Compendium, include arrack (an Asian alcoholic beverage) made with gula Melaka from Indonesia, rum using molasses from Malaysia, and honey spirit and whiskey made using honey and rice grains from Thailand.

The added step of crafting its own base spirit, by first fermenting a type of raw sugar, means having greater control of the flavours, since most NGS are flavourless and can be made from anything from grains to potatoes.

‘No short cuts’

“There are no short cuts in our processes. All of our alcohol bases are fermented in-house, with high-quality, premium fermentables carefully sourced from all around Asia. This ensures unparalleled smoothness with every sip.”

Zhao adds: “From the very beginning, our ethos has always been to showcase our Asian roots and focus on keeping everything 100% natural and self-made with no artificial flavourings or colourings. That’s how we stay uniquely different from other distilleries.”

Those wanting to craft their own bottle of booze using Compendium’s uniquely Asian base spirits can do so with Chartered by Compendium Spirits, a newly-launched and barrel ageing programme managed by Zhao at his Mandai facility. This end-to-end customised programme is a Singapore first, possibly even a first in the world.

“The Chartered programme is not only designed for private buyers and collectors, but also takes spirit-forward customers on an intimate adventure to discover more about making spirits from scratch, from fermentation to distillation, all the way to bottling and labelling,” he says. “It’s not a one-time effort, but a collective journey to explore and understand the beauty of crafting spirits.”

To start, you first decide on the base spirit from the four that Zhao manufactures in-house. Then you pick the right size American oak barrel (from Casknolia) with corresponding minimum ageing periods — four-litre (three months), eight-litre (six months), 16-litre (nine months), 32-litre (12 months). In case you’re wondering, the four-litre barrel can fill 13 bottles (500ml each) while the 32-litre barrel will fill up to 103 bottles with a cask strength of about 60% ABV (alcohol by volume).

Perfecting the process

It is important to note that a longer ageing process does not necessarily mean a better-tasting spirit. Based on tonnes of trial and error, Zhao has found that three months for the smallest barrel is the optimal maturation period that offers the perfect balance of colour, character, flavour profile and aroma. “We have found that a three-month old whiskey tastes very similar to a 10-year-old Scotch simply because the heat and humidity accelerates ageing,” he adds.

While he says that over-ageing can be just as bad as under-ageing — the liquid may taste of too much oak — nothing is to stop you from prolonging your barrel ageing if you wish. Instead, you should be more concerned about angel share (evaporation) as the hotter weather here will dry up the alcohol faster and also make the remaining liquid very concentrated. “In general, alcohol ages about three times faster in Asia compared to Europe. In Singapore, we estimate that you can lose about 10% of alcohol in a year.”

During the ageing process, the fun part will undoubtedly be the tasting sessions with Zhao to determine if your spirit is ready to be bottled, labelled and shipped out. As for your empty barrel, Zhao says that you can continue to use it to explore other spirit permutations such as ageing whiskey in a rum-aged cask to adopt different flavours. It is the same way whiskey flavours change or get enhanced dramatically when stored in ex-sherry or ex-port casks. For casual drinkers, arrack is a good starting point for a barrel-ageing project as its intensely-sweet flavours become more nuanced over time. The rice-based whiskey — which Zhao says smells like freshly-cooked rice — is ideal for more seasoned drinkers who wish for something deeper and darker.

We asked Zhao what was the strangest request he has received from his customers thus far? “We have one client who asked us to combine a cask with half-rum and half-whiskey. We have also had to polish rice grains just like those in sake breweries. We’re happy to entertain all your strange requests!”

Prices for customised casks differ depending on the base spirit and barrel size: $1,188 to $2,088 (four litres cask, 13 bottles), $2,088 to $2,688 (eight litres cask, 26 bottles), $3,788 to $4,988 (16 litres cask, 52 bottles) and $6,788 to $8,888 (32 litre cask, 103 bottles).

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