Why these Singaporeans are making gin from typhoon-damaged rice crops
Terence Loh and Min Teo are turning typhoon-damaged rice crops from Taiwan into a ‘climate-positive’ gin that reflects Asia’s culture.
At first glance, childhood friends Terence Loh and Min Teo look like your regular high flyers. One is an entrepreneur and philanthropist, while the other is a first-class honours environmental scientist who helps companies develop innovative environmental management policies.
But they also had more spiritual aspirations brewing afoot, which finally distilled into the launch of Zhen Gin this month.
Two years ago, Loh and Teo were on one of their surfing trips along the eastern coast of Taiwan, when a typhoon hit and they sought refuge at a friend’s home that was located in the middle of rice fields. Struck by the “warzone” scene of water-soaked crops, inspiration hit.
“We’ve been experimenting with making beers and gins, but nothing was to our satisfaction; they all tasted as if they were taken off the shelves,” said Teo, the environmental scientist.
“Since that was the place where some of the best rice in the world comes from, we thought of making something out of it, and we finally found the authentic taste we were looking for.”
Zhen Gin, which is certified vegan by BeVeg, is made in a Yilan county distillery using rice grains bought from local farmers located along the eastern board of Taiwan from Taitung to Yilan.
They are fermented for two to three weeks to create a rice wine of 14 to 18 per cent ABV (Alcohol By Volume), which is then distilled into a base spirit of 80 to 90 per cent ABV to retain its signature flavour.
This method not only helps the farmers to sell off rice crops damaged by seasonal typhoons, but also reduces the contribution of methane emissions that would have ensued from the microbial decomposition of the crop.
The base spirit is then infused with Bhutanese juniper (“because Bhutan is the happiest place in the world” explained Teo), Thai coriander seeds that have been roasted for a charred taste, and Yunnan osmanthus.
The result is a gin with an umami bent, made to be imbibed neat or on the rocks. It has a refreshing floral nose with malty overtones and a lingering mild peppery finish.
“We wanted a gin that tastes of blood, sweat and toil, and be something that you would drink with the people you love – true friends and family.” – Min Teo
“Most gins are flavoured with an eastern botanical, but it’s often seen as a western drink. It is always used as an ingredient in a cocktail, but never good enough on its own,” said Loh, who is the CEO of medical, healthcare and aesthetic conglomerate Novena Global Lifecare Group and private investment company DORR Group, as well as co-founder of The Loh Foundation.
“We want a gin that’s truly Asian and represents Asia. Instead of trying to be like other gins with 20 to 30 botanicals, we focused on a few key ingredients to create a gin with a balanced yet uniquely Asian profile to complement the original rice flavour.”
Small, beautiful and authentic is the refrain that Loh and Teo are going with: The Chinese character for Zhen means “real” and only 5,000 bottles are produced every month to maintain quality.
A limited edition is already in the works: A special gin called Zhen Yi, which is infused with maqaw, an indigenous Taiwanese ingredient that’s also known as mountain pepper.
It was a hands-on passion project for Loh and Teo. They laughed as they shared how Loh’s kitchen was nearly burnt down when they initially experimented making the gin with a kit bought from eBay.
Teo said: “Within 15 minutes the heating plates broke down. We even tried other methods like sous vide and cooking over a stove, but in the end we used a rice cooker as a water bath.” Later on, at the distillery, Teo drank a 10ml shot of 80 per cent ABV every 10 minutes for four hours to replicate the finalised distillation profile.
Teo said: “We wanted a gin that tastes of blood, sweat and toil, and be something that you would drink with the people you love – true friends and family. It is also about the preservation of culture as we use ingredients harvested by the Taiwanese aborigines.”
Once the pandemic ends, there are plans to collaborate with chefs around the world on food-gin pairings, as well as up-and-coming artists, musicians and artisanal woodworkers from Asia.
In the meantime, they are channeling positivity and financial aid towards Singapore-based bartenders with the #BarTabSG Relief Fund. From now to June 30, 20 per cent of Zhen Gin’s sale proceeds will go into the fund to be shared equally among eligible applicants, while another 20 per cent goes directly to the bartenders through the sales they make. The Loh Foundation will also make a matching contribution to the amount raised by Zhen Gin for the fund.
Loh said: “Generosity and hospitality were given to us during a time of disaster. It is now our turn to take care of the community when they are going through difficult times. This is what the spirit of Zhen Gin is all about.”
“Generosity and hospitality were given to us during a time of disaster. It is now our turn to take care of the community when they are going through difficult times. This is what the spirit of Zhen Gin is all about.” – Terence Loh