You might be familiar with Sichuan pepper as a key ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder, but for Rick Ames and Simin Kayhan Ames, founders of Paper Lantern Distilling, the bold aromatic headlines the very first gin produced by this husband-and-wife team. Going by the name of Sichuan Pepper Gin, the rice-based spirit features seven other botanicals sourced from Chiang Mai's spice markets. Think ginger, galangal, lemongrass, and even makhwaen, a Thai pepper with fruity and woody overtones. Boasting an aromatic bouquet of Asian ingredients, their Sichuan Pepper Gin shines with herbal, spicy, and citrusy notes all pulled together with a touch of Thai honey. Below, Rick and Simin discuss their foray into the craft spirit industry, using Asian ingredients to craft gin, and their favourite way to enjoy this tipple.
You've lived in Boston where you dabbled with making your own beers. Now that you've started Paper Lantern, why did you choose to focus on gin instead?
The very best thing about gin is the almost limitless options you have for flavours, which is what hooked us in the beginning. Before we moved abroad, we thought about creating our own craft gin. We read up on the business of distilling and attended a few workshops with the Siebel Institute in Chicago with the intention of opening up our own distillery. When we relocated to Singapore, we looked around at how plush and alive Southeast Asia is with its vast varieties of fruits and spices, and we knew that this was the place to make it happen.
From a flavour perspective, what do you think makes your gin stand out?
We make what's known as an International Gin. International gins are gins that still maintain their juniper character, but also allow other botanicals to play a big part in the flavour and aroma story. The rice base gives the gin a softness to the flavour, and there is a subtle sweetness that comes through and provides the perfect platform for our other flavours of ginger, galangal, lemongrass, makhwaen (a Thai pepper), and Sichuan pepper to come through.
How long did it take to fine tune the recipe for the Sichuan Pepper Gin?
From start to finish it's been about eight to nine months. Over this period, we've moved through 100 different assemblages and experimented with different distillation methods for many of the botanicals. It has been a lot of work, but well worth the wait for the final results.
Paper Lantern is dedicated to showcasing Asian ingredients. Have you had trouble incorporating any botanicals in particular?
The real challenge came from getting the very delicate and complex aromas to come through. The Sichuan Pepper is finicky and its flavours are intense. This was the most difficult part of the process, but the most important part as well. When we were sifting through all the different botanicals, trying to figure out which ones to use and the proportions in which to blend them in, the seemingly limitless options did feel rather overwhelming at times. However, with each assemblage, we edged just that bit closer to our ideal taste profile and narrowed down the list of ingredients until we arrived at our final magic eight.
Going beyond the good old G&T, what's an unexpected way to enjoy gin?
We tend to enjoy ours neat. For a refreshing change of pace, we just love a gin and soda with a squeeze of lime in a tall glass over ice. Tryi adding a drop of honey — it's simply delicious! Light, refreshing, and still packed with flavour.
What's next for Paper Lantern Distilling?
We are looking at a lot of different ideas right now. There are so many different kinds of fruits here that we could build into our next product, so we are leaning in that direction, but for now, the focus is our gin. At some point, we would love to put some liquid into barrels and start aging them. Aged gin is not unheard of in some parts of the world, and with the ability to age spirits, there is a whole new list of wonderful liquors and liqueurs we could develop. However, barrel-aging alcohol in tropical climates is not something we have come across yet, but we are working on it!
What's your favourite way to enjoy the Sichuan Pepper Gin?
Because our Sichuan Pepper gin is so unique, we like to suggest drinking it in a way that allows the beautiful flavours to come through. Everyone loves the classic gin and tonic, but if you prefer something a bit sweeter, a gin smash—or as we call it, a Sichuan Smash—is a great choice. It's simple and easy to make at home. Start with Paper Lantern's Sichuan Pepper Gin, add in freshly squeezed lemon, simple sugar syrup, and garnish with some Thai basil leaves. Of course, our gin also goes well with your favourite tonic water.
Below, the recipe for Paper Lantern's Sichuan Smash:
Here's what you need
50ml Paper Lantern Gin
20ml Freshly squeezed lemon
20ml Sugar syrup (one part sugar, one part water)
8-10 Thai basil leaves
How to make it
1. Combine all ingredients directly into chosen glass.
2. Add crushed ice and churn with bar spoon or swizzle stick.
3. Top up ice so it is raised over the glass.
4. Garnish with Thai basil leaves and dehydrated or fresh lime.
To order your bottle of Sichuan Pepper Gin, visit Paper Lantern.