compendium spirits simon zhao
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With origins dating back to 2015, Compendium Spirits is a unique distillery in Asia that uses only regional ingredients to create its own base ferments and distillates.

The 38-year-old founder, Simon Zhao, started the business after he graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Chemical Engineering degree, and gained a passion for brewing and distilling.

His background in sciences and love for homebrewing helped him to produce alcohol that was not only of high quality, but also unique in terms of its flavour.

He used to share his creations with family and friends for free, and their valuable feedback helped him develop his skills as a distiller, eventually earning himself the nickname “Simon the Bootlegger”.

Then in 2015, he founded Rachelle the Rabbit Meadery — fondly named after his daughter — which was Singapore’s first and only meadery back then.

Interestingly, this is not his first business venture. He used to be in the apparel trade but realised that it wasn’t a good fit for him, so he decided to pursue his interest in alcohol-making instead.

Pivoting from meadery to distillery

The distillery started out as a meadery, producing mead with honey as a base ferment, but as the business became more commercially viable, Simon and his team decided to delve into the spirits industry.

“Spirits made more business sense as there is a ready market for it,” he explained.

rojak chendol gin compendium spirits
Rojak gin / Image Credit: Compendium Spirits

In 2019, Simon took his business to the next level by launching his first distilled product, the Rojak Gin, which used honey as the base distillate and became the flagship product.

This was followed by the rebranding of the business as Compendium Spirits in 2020, which was meant to be a collection of spirits from Southeast Asia.

The idea was to create a new flavour each year, and by the time Rachelle turns 18, there will be 18 different flavours dedicated to her, so to speak. This somewhat transpires from the Chinese Nu Er Hong tradition.

– Simon Zhao, founder of Compendium Spirits

The company has since launched several other products, including Singapore’s first single grain whiskey, the Hom Mali Rice Whiskey.

Tapping on regional ingredients across Asia

What mainly sets Compendium Spirits apart from other distilleries is its use of only regional ingredients like Hom Mali rice and honey from Thailand, gula melaka from Indonesia, and molasses from Malaysia.

We source from within Southeast Asia as much as we can — save for things like juniper berries since they don’t grow here — as that ties in with our identity. We are a distillery in Asia using Asian raw ingredients and Asian sensibilities to create products uniquely from the region.

It’s meant to be the answer to the question: if gin (or vodka, or whisky, or rum) were to originate from this part of the world, what could it be like?

– Simon Zhao, founder of Compendium Spirits
compendium spirits
Image Credit: Compendium Spirits

The company also produces its own base spirits in-house, which is a departure from most distilleries that use NGS (Neutral Grain Spirit) and additives.

Although this takes more work and effort, Simon stressed that it naturally enhances the flavour and resonates with their Southeast Asian ethos.

“It helps too that we started as a meadery, meaning we are strong in fermentation as well as distillation. We own the entire production process from raw ingredient to bottle. The only thing missing now is a farm,” he remarked.

He added that the R&D process at Compendium Spirits is organic, with Simon taking inspiration from customers, industry friends and other sources.

The team often tries out small batches of their creations first. If the outcome is good, the product is kept and developed further. If not, they experiment with another flavour or find another way to produce the desired result. This process of trial and error is what helps Compendium Spirits create truly unique and delicious spirits.

compendium spirits
Image Credit: Compendium Spirits

Our ideas come from everywhere. For instance, the sojus have all been inspired by local desserts. Ondeh Ondeh, Bandung and Pineapple Tart are all flavours folks from here, which the region are already familiar with.

Our Spiced Rum is made using kampot peppers from Cambodia. It’s a very valuable spice that originates from Southeast Asia, and we want to show how it can really work in a spirit too. We are now experimenting more with base ingredients once again. With the Hom Mali Rice Whiskey a success, we are looking at different rice strains now, and experimenting to see how different they are.

– Simon Zhao, founder of Compendium Spirits

However, not all their attempts have been successful, such as creating bitters. Although a Singaporean version of bitters has potential, they have yet to nail down the exact flavour profile, so this still remains a work-in-progress.

Education efforts all around

In addition to its commitment to using only regional ingredients, Compendium Spirits is also dedicated to creating a better and more conscious drinking experience. The company aims to educate consumers about the importance of drinking better and the role of sugar in alcohol production.

Additionally, Simon has faced a major challenge in educating people about his brand and the concept of craft spirits.

There are many layers to understanding what I’m trying to do with Compendium Spirits. It’s craft as opposed to mass, local as opposed to international, natural as opposed to synthetic, and more.

The educational challenge is also different for different product categories. Explaining about gin often leads to questions about flavour, but with whiskey, the questions are usually more about technicalities and production methods. People ask a lot about the relatively high price point as well, which leads to explanations about the production process and how it differs from the norm.

– Simon Zhao, founder of Compendium Spirits

As the business advances past its launch stage, where establishing a presence was the main focus, Compendium Spirits now focus on creating more “complex” products.

compendium spirits
Image Credit: Compendium Spirits

For one, it has introduced a bespoke barrel-aging service called Chartered, which is the first of its kind in Singapore.

“In a nutshell, it’s a service that allows anyone to own and buy a whole barrel of aged spirit, and which can be tailored completely to their needs. Want to make a cask strength whiskey aged in an ex-rum barrel then bottled with a label with your name on it? You can totally do that,” explained Simon.

Beyond that, the programme enables the co-creation of a barrel of spirit directly with customers. This hands-on learning approach helps to increase education about the brand and how they work.

So far, the demand for workshops and masterclasses has been high, as it offers the perfect setting for customers to learn about the distillery and enjoy drinks while having fun.

Separately, Compendium Spirits also faced challenges in the B2B market, as it is harder to convince bartenders and others in the alcohol trade to switch to using their products. To overcome this, they work closely with bars, hotels and F&B groups to create unique recipes and customised products to suit their individual needs.

“We find that once someone understands what we do, it just continues snowballing into something bigger and bigger. That’s exactly the kind of working relationship we enjoy and want,” said Simon.

Adapt and innovate

compendium spirits simon zhao
Image Credit: Compendium Spirits

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a mixed impact on the business. Direct e-commerce sales improved dramatically thanks to their DIY cocktail boxes, but declined as restrictions eased.

[The boxes] came with everything you needed, including equipment and garnishing, to make your own cocktails at home. These kits sold exceptionally well during that initial period, but around the 2022 mark when restrictions eased, the demand for these boxes were no longer there.

We had to be adaptive once again, and in many ways, return to the former ways of doing business. The good thing is that there’s now demand from corporates for the cocktail boxes as workshop implements. We just have to keep being flexible and go with the flow of what the needs currently are.

– Simon Zhao, founder of Compendium Spirits

To date, Compendium Spirits has received an investment of S$2 million and is expecting more funding to enable its next stage of growth. The company has steadily maintained a two-digit growth year-on-year, and has in fact reached a point where their production capacity can no longer meet demand.

In the year ahead, the company has big plans in store, including a major partnership and new venture that emphasises education and experience on distillery processes to help consumers better understand how alcohol is really made.

Ultimately, its goal is to become a leading player in the spirits industry in Southeast Asia by using agriculture from the region to create unique, locally-inspired spirits.

Featured Image Credit: Compendium Spirits

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)