Sichuan pepper is key for new gin

Home-grown craft spirit company Paper Lantern Distilling has garnered more than $25,000 in pledges via a crowd-funding campaign, for a craft gin with Sichuan peppercorns as the hero ingredient.

American expatriate couple Simin Kayhan Ames, 35, and Rick Ames, 40, launched their campaign on May 16 on crowd-funding site Pozible, hoping to raise an initial target of $15,000.

But they raised that amount in just 30 hours and people can still pledge money until June 17.

Kayhan Ames says she and her husband, who have lived here for four years, want to create a unique and different gin "that showcases the beauty of the region here".

She says: "We saw the different spices, ingredients, food and everything that are available here and we just fell in love with the local produce and that's what kicked it off for us."

So they are using only Asian ingredients such as rice from Thailand and other aromatics from the region. Gin is usually made from a mix of grains that can include wheat, barley, corn and rye.

A bottle of the first-batch gin costs $100. The campaign also allows supporters to purchase up to 12 bottles - each hand-numbered - with the first deliveries in Singapore expected to go out next month.

The company is a full-time pursuit for managing director Kayhan Ames, who left her job in finance. Her husband still holds down his corporate day job. They have been overwhelmed by the support so far.

Speaking to The Sunday Times, the mother of three young children says the 100 per cent self-funded project is very much like her fourth child.

She is originally from Turkey, the home of anise-flavoured Raki, while her husband was born in Kentucky, famous for its bourbon. Both are spirits enthusiasts, having always brewed beers and ciders at home.

Other than being gin lovers, she says they chose it to start off their company because, unlike whiskies or brandies, gin does not need to age before it can be brought to market. "For a small producer, obviously we don't have the flexibility of time on our hands, so I think gin is a really good starting point," she says.

"It's also because by using botanicals, you're able to showcase ingredients in your spirit."

She says the couple thought it was important to highlight the ingredients of South-east Asia.

The gin is made with handpicked Thai rice that is milled on-site at the Edelbrand distillery in Chiang Mai, owned by distiller Nikolaus Prachensky. They sussed him out from their initial research and later decided he was someone they wanted to work with.

The milled rice powder is fermented for a few days and the result of that, called the "distiller's wash", is run through a 150-litre Carl copper pot still three times, to get the rice-base spirit. The flavour of eight botanicals, including Sichuan pepper, the Thai pepper Makhwaen, ginger, galangal and lemongrass, are then distilled into the gin. It then goes into big, stainless-steel tanks to rest before being filtered and bottled for distribution.

It was a painstaking process of almost 100 trials before they figured out the right blend of botanicals that worked best.

Sichuan pepper was chosen because it is a flavour that the couple associate with many cuisines in South-east Asia.

"It really resonated with us because it's complex and delicate at the same time, and there's really nothing like (a pepper gin) in the market," she adds.

While it can be enjoyed with any tonic water, the couple recommend having the gin with soda water and a dash of lime juice. "Soda really brings out the flavours of the gin. It's a light and refreshing choice, especially if you're watching your sugar intake," she says.

Ultimately, they want to work on other interesting flavour profiles based on the ingredients of South-east Asia. They are also open to distilling spirits in Singapore.

She says: "We'd love to produce in Singapore, but we're just getting started, so we don't have the means to do so currently."

While she would love to one day see their gin in the airport at the duty-free shops or winning awards, the immediate concern is with getting the bottles out to those who have invested in the project and also kicking off the second batch of gin production.

After the crowd-funding campaign on Pozible is over, the gin will be available online at www.drinkpaperlantern.com.

Additionally, they are now in talks with several bars, restaurants and selected retail outlets in Singapore to stock the gin. "Right now, the focus is gin and getting it in the hands of as many people as possible," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'Sichuan pepper is key for new gin'. Print Edition | Subscribe