In Singapore, reinvention seems to almost be necessary for any food or drink deemed a local delicacy. A cautious reception isin order; if it lives up to the original, acceptance is slow and begrudging. And yet for some, it is how a classic is born – which might just be the route the small-batch distillers at Compendium be lucky to go down.
Also makers of Teh-O and Kopi-O (local tea and coffee) liqueurs, their rojak and chendol flavoured gins were launched last month at the National Gallery’s Smoke & Mirrors by Brand Ambassador Vic Ram alongside Smoke & Mirrors’ Head Bartender, Jorge A. Conde. It’s a tall order to accurately replicate the complexity of both – and that’s before the product even has a chance to pass through public approval.
For anyone unfamiliar with the two dishes in question, chendol is a shaved ice dessert with green rice flour jelly, coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. Local pride extends throughout the variations – from Old Amoy’s version in Singapore to the famous Penang Road Chendol in Georgetown, Penang.
There’re plenty of cocktail-friendly flavours that come with the dessert inspiration, and fermented gula melaka (palm sugar) is a good segway between both. Doubly distilled, the spirit is treated in the first round to roughen out its edges of the spirit. The second distillation adds on layers of complexity with juniper, pandan and coconut, so aromas of the classic chendol intersperse with juniper’s spicier notes.
Rojak is typically a savoury salad of diced cucumber, pineapple, and beancurd, slathered in brown sugar tamarind dressing and generously showered in crushed peanut. It’s diverse and the unique combination of sweet, savoury and spicy make it’s reengineering difficult, and especially so when the distillation comes with only three key botanicals.
On the nose, the first whiffs of torched ginger steer the mind in a savoury direction, bolstered by strong notes of juniper, followed by hints of lemon. Also, the use of sweet homemade mead instead of a neutral grain base gives it more body, reminiscent of rojak’s brown sugar tamarind dressing. Jorge’s Rojak Milk Punch (S$22++) at Smoke & Mirrors brings the gin’s flavours to the forefront, with the addition of spiced pechuga (the name is derived from the fowl used in the redistillation of mezcal, along with various other fruits and spices, that give the spirit a fuller body). It rounds the tipple with more nuttiness and a slight savoury dimension, and is topped with a smoky finish.
It’s a slippery slope from reinvention to replication; simply distilling every possible ingredient can technically make for a closest possible match, but usually leads to a frustrating muddle of flavours. Defying expectations with a selective strategy that involve only key botanicals for each distillate that only ever so slightly piques nostalgia, Compendium’s new releases are versatile enough to play well with the others behind the bar.
Want to try some for yourself? Jorge’s Rojak Milk Punch (S$22++), a fragrant mix of Rojak Gin, spiced pechuga, milk and peanuts, will be available from now till the end of August.