Talking Craft Whisky With Five Of The Region’s Leading Bartenders

We gathered together Vender’s Summer Chen, Sidecar’s Minakshi Singh, JungleBird’s Lolita Goh, Alice’s Terry Kim and Stay Gold Flamingo’s Jerrold Khoo to talk about craft whisky for International Whisky Day on 27th March. And we covered everything from how perceptions of the spirit have changed in their countries, to which one craft whisky they would choose to convert a non-believer.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

What’s swirling around in that glass might look like any old amber-colored liquid. But, where craft whisky (‘craft’ roughly meaning whisky that’s produced in limited quantities, distilled and bottled on site, and with a large degree of independent ownership) is concerned, it’s far richer and more fascinating than that. 

“Craft whiskies can evoke such rich historical narratives,” Summer Chen sighs. 

Multi-award winning bartender, Summer Chen, first worked in Singapore at bars like Summerlong. Today, she runs Vender in Taiwan, which she opened with her partner, Darren Lim. As the name suggests, guests enter through a vending machine – a tribute to those always-on dispensers of goodies that are ubiquitous in Taiwan. Last year, Vender was recognized as the #41 Best Bar In Asia

Minakshi Singh, the co-founder of Sidecar in Delhi, India, concurs. “In a good craft whisky, every element is mindfully, meticulously considered. And, like Summer says, each step contributes something to the narrative of the finished product.”

Minakshi Singh talks craft whiskey
“In a good craft whisky, every element is mindfully, meticulously considered.” — Minakshi Singh

Minakshi first opened Cocktails and Dreams Speakeasy with co-founder Yangdup Lama in 2012. Together, buoyed by its success, they went on to open Sidecar in 2018. Along the way, she’s seen the domestic bar industry grow exponentially, while becoming more inclusive – thanks, in part, to her work. Last year Sidecar was ranked #18 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars list, after breaking through into the list in 2020 (only the second bar in India ever to do so) to become a bastion of the country’s bar industry. 

Even Lolita Goh, from JungleBird, Kuala Lumpur – a bar created as a shrine to another spirit, rum – can’t help waxing lyrical over whisky. “When it’s good, like the delicious bottle of Longrow 18, from Springbank in Campbeltown, that we have at JungleBird, it’s so incredibly velvety to sip. And that whisky has these delightful stewed green apple characteristics, as well as real history – it’s one of the few remaining Scottish distilleries to continue to perform every step in the whisky-making process, from malting to bottling.”

“Or there’s the Glendronach 21 Parliament, aged in Oloroso Sherry and Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks. It has this slight smokiness and a refreshing, lemon-apple-like, light woody scent that lingers along with notes like well-grilled toast, dried fruit, and a even a little well-made espresso!” South Korea’s Terry Kim joins in. 

Terry counts himself among the old school of Korean bartenders – one of the originals who really kickstarted the industry there. And, as evidence, he has six bars to his name so far: two Get All Right bars (one in Busan and one in Seoul), Jungle Book, Trala Bottle Club, Mood Seoul, and the Alice In Wonderland-inspired bar, Alice.

“I like the kind of craft whisky that still tastes like whisky while at the same time excluding some unique personality,’ Jerrold Khoo, from Singapore’s Stay Gold Flamingo, decides. 

Stay Gold Flamingo is Jerrold and co-founder JiaWei’s two-concept (cafe-bar out front, cocktail bar in the back) street-posh, rock and roll inspired refuge from the daily grind that entered Asia’s 50 Best Bars at #32 last year. But Jerrold discovered craft whisky way before all that, back, he says, when he worked in a whisky bar called Flagship, where his ex-boss would do impromptu tastings of obscure craft whiskies. 

Vender's Summer Chen
Multi-award winning bartender, Summer Chen runs Vender in Taiwan.

Let’s start with an easy question. What makes a whisky good?

Terry: ‘Good’ is relative. Everyone has a different taste. Plus, the feeling that whisky gives you depends very much on when, where, with whom…and what position you drink it in! Personally though, ‘good’ to me means well-balanced. 

Summer Chen: I do think good whisky delivers an indelible imbibing experience. One that encompasses the adeptness, commitment, and ingenuity of its creators…all in one sip. 

Minakshi: And there are so many stages to get to ‘good.’ There’s the responsible sourcing of high-quality grain at the outset, through to giving meticulous attention to water, the distillation process, aging, and ultimately to bottling and packaging.

Lolita: An important part of creating a good craft whisky, to me, is that the maker has a clear picture of what they are setting out to make – like the distillers at Lochlea who grow their own barley which allows them more control over the final product – and beyond that, they should know who their target audience is going to be. 

Jerrold: Right, I think it’s fine to break rules when making a craft whisky – or doing anything. But break them with good reason.

And which is your personal favorite craft whisky right now?

Jerrold: My exploration phase came to a halt when I left Flagship, although those craft whiskies, which were mostly American, left an indelible impression. I remember trying (and enjoying) Lost Spirits Leviathan III, FEW Spirits, Compass Box, and Highwest. 

Summer Chen: For me, the Ledaig 18 Years Old Limited Release with Sherry Wood Finish.

Minakshi: Indian malts are having a moment. And I couldn’t be happier. Personally, I have always enjoyed Paul John Bold. And Godawan No. 2. I also recently tried Rampur Double Cask, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Lolita: The Longrow 18 I mentioned earlier. Although, I’m not sure if you would call Longrow craft or not? 

Terry: My favorite whiskey is Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, which is, as the name suggests, aged first in a lightly toasted, charred barrel, and then in a second deeply toasted, lightly charred Double Oaked barrel. It’s sweet, chocolatey and it has a ripe plum flavor that goes well with most foods. For me it has the best balance for the price.

Terry Kim from Alice
Terry Kim, from the old-school of Korean bartenders.

What craft whiskies would you recommend to a seasoned whisky connoisseur, and to an aspiring whisky enthusiast? 

Minakshi: For the seasoned whisky drinker, I’d remind them to stay open to exploration. And I’d recommend them to have fun with both old world and new world whiskies. Everything’s in shift – time, our palates, geography and culture. And so, it’s the journey and not the destination when it comes to discovering spirits. 

To the aspirant, I’d say “don’t be daunted.” It can feel like a complex space. But it’s good to start simply with what’s available – start local, and check what’s available on your local spirits market. 

Lolita Goh: Even for connoisseurs, there are some exceptional new drams coming out of places like Tasmania to discover.

For someone starting out, experiment with brands from every Scottish region first. Generally, I always recommend guests to begin in Scotland with something lighter from the Lowlands before moving on to Speyside and the other regions. As you do, conduct a little research and develop at least a surface understanding of the different styles. Then, you can consider branching out and trying whiskies from other countries. 

Terry Kim: For the seasoned connoisseur, that Glendronach 21 Parliament. It’s the best dessert for after a meal or as the accompaniment to a light cigar. 

For the enthusiast, I’d recommend Octomore. It’s a powerful and peaty Islay single malt whisky. But it’s not just smoky. It has an extremely delicate beauty hidden behind the intensity that, over time, becomes more and more enchanting. 

Summer Chen: For aficionados, the Ledaig 18 Years Old Limited Release with its Sherry Wood Finish. That’s due to its complexity and balance. There’s a harmonious interplay of flavors that evolve on the palate. It’s a multi-dimensional tasting experience!

For the enthusiast, Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Single Cask Strength for its unique flavor profile and exceptional quality.

Jerrold: I like to take risks. So, I’d be cheeky and bring out a non-Scotch, non-age-statement whisky to the connoisseur. That is, if I feel that they’d be open to it. I’d recommend Indian Amrut Whisky, or Tasmanian’s Hellyers Road. And I wouldn’t be adverse to trying these on the enthusiast too. They’re approachable, but unusual.

Have you noticed any whisky trends where you are? Or is there any news we should be aware of?

Terry: Oh, in Korea, everything changed after the pandemic. Besides the culture taking root of making and drinking cocktails at home, low-ABV and low-calorie drinks became popular as people valued their health and a healthy lifestyle more. So, highballs became popular too. This created two trends in the whisky industry – first, the interest in whisky increased, and second, people started to steer towards brands that they felt an affinity with. Another outcome of this was that balanced but low-cost whiskies became popular with the public. 

In terms of news, the upcoming Spirit of Craft Awards, announced in May in Singapore, will provide a fascinating insight into craft spirits, including craft whiskies. I’m looking forward to the insights we’ll get and the trends that will emerge, which inevitably will predict consumer behavior in the future.  

Minakshi: Rules are being broken. Constantly. And that keeps the industry young and vibrant. We’re seeing experiments with finishes and even some exciting new aging processes. 

The demand is huge in Asia. 

So, I think that will lead to even more innovative and exciting whisky brands emerging in the region. And like Terry said, accolades like the Spirit of Craft Awards, which will welcome craft spirit makers from around the world, will propel some unknown gems into the spotlight. Consumers will benefit from the focus on local stories, local producers, and sustainability. 

Lolita: From personal experience, and what I see at JungleBird, there’s a rise in sales of rye and rye-based cocktails. People are asking more often for Boulevardiers and Manhattans, which is great. 

We just got our hands on a couple of cases of Rittenhouse. For me, it is one of the best affordable rye whiskies money can buy. 

Summer: We’re definitely seeing a shift. Asia is becoming the capital for cocktails. And I think that will drive innovation – something we’re already seeing from many distilleries who are adopting more experimental approaches. For example, Omar Distillery in Nantou, Taiwan, has been aging their whiskies in plum liqueur barrels and even lychee liqueur barrels.

I’m interested to see what the first ever Spirit of Craft Awards highlights too. 

Lolita Goh from JungleBird
JungleBird co-founder Lolita Goh: “We do have a respectable collection of whiskies [at JungleBird], considering we’re such a sugarcane-focused establishment.”

How has whisky consumption changed in your country since you’ve been in the business? 

Minakshi: India has been a whisky consuming country since we started drinking! But now the conversation is moving towards quality, value for money and provenance. Even the passion of the founders is more relevant than ever. 

Summer: Taiwan drinks a significant amount of whisky too! And I’ve worked with numerous whisky enthusiasts on promoting craft whiskies since I’ve returned to my home city of Taichung. In that time, I’ve also definitely noted a growing appreciation for finer whiskies. 

Jerrold: Diversification. More bars are carrying more obscure selections of craft whiskies. We even have a Singaporean whisky now.

Terry: Honestly, whisky used to be something you’d drink in KTV. That was an indicator that, in the Korean market at least, people didn’t really drink whisky for its taste. People drank whisky to get drunk. But now, whisky, like wine, has become an integral part of our cultural life. People have really developed a taste for it.

Lolita: From what I’ve seen, consumption of whisky might have slowed down over the last ten years. That may have been because of the rise in popularity of gin. But my perspective is always skewed towards rum – that’s our forte at JungleBird. Having said that, we do have a respectable collection of whiskies, considering we’re such a sugarcane-focused establishment. 

Which one whisky that you’ve had in your life would you like to revisit over and over again?

Minakshi: I’ve always been a fan of Speyside whiskies. Recently, I visited the home of Dewar’s, in Aberfeldy. It was such a memorable experience, trying out different expressions, and some lesser known blends. Also, I got to meet Dewar’s master blender, Stephanie MacLeod. I’d revisit that whole experience over and over again, if I could.

Lolita: The Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask…for obvious reasons!

Jerrold: Day-to-day, I like Taliskers and Port Charlotte. I’m always on the lookout for Talisker Ruighe. Or, for that matter, any peated whisky finished in sherry oak. But, should I come across a Leviathan or a Compass Box Flaming Hearts I would go for either of those!

Summer: The symphony of flavors offered by The Glenfiddich 21 Year Old Reserva Rum Cask Finish. There’s notes of rich oak, vanilla, toffee, and dried fruits which are complemented by some hints of tropical sweetness from the Caribbean Rum casks. The long aging process also gives it a smooth and velvety texture which makes each sip a truly indulgent experience. 

Terry:  I’m sticking with the Woodford Reserve Double Oak! And the reason is simple – the balance is good and so is the finish whether you drink it with or without ice.

Jerrold Khoo from Stay Gold Flamingo
“We even have a Singaporean whisky now,” Jerrold Khoo tells us.

Finally, which whisky would you serve to a guest to make them instantly fall in love with the drink?

Summer: Nikka From The Barrel. It’s a whisky that has a rich and complex flavor profile. But it’s versatile enough to be enjoyed neat, on the rocks or in a cocktail.

Lolita: This might sound generic, but I’d choose Maker’s Mark. The mash bill of corn, wheat and barley, makes for a very soft, complex, and quite frankly delightful drinking experience. Added to that, the family’s history is fascinating. And it’s very versatile in cocktails. 

Minakshi: Can I choose more than one? If so, I’d start with something easy and sippable. Maybe Ballantine’s Finest. Then I’d move them to Johnny Walker Gold, then to a Jameson 12YO. After that, we’d go to a Yamazaki 18 Mizunara. And we’d finish with a Godawan No. 2. It would be such a delight to rediscover those whiskies through someone else’s palate. 

Terry: I’d gauge it based on the situation. Each whisky, like every cocktail, has its own story. And, I’d want to know the guest’s story too. For example, behind Talisker Whisky is a sad love story between an island princess and the prince from a nearby kingdom – perfect for lovers who are having a hard time. 

Another counter-intuitive but fascinating approach I’d take is to introduce female guests to the stronger Islay whiskies, and male guests to more delicate Speyside whiskies…

Jerrold: I’m still a bartender, first and foremost. So, I’d start them off with a whisky sour…

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