Co-founder of Wholly Spirits Shawn Samuel sets new bar for KL’s biggest gin and tonic event

The East Imperial Gin Jubilee is finally back after three long years.

Managing director and co-founder of Wholly Spirits Shawn Samuel (Photo: Low Yen Yeing/The Edge Malaysia)

Options: Congratulations on restarting the East Imperial Gin Jubilee, which was temporarily shelved due to the pandemic. What can revellers look forward to this year?
Shawn Samuel: It’s definitely KL’s premiere gin and tonic celebration. This year, there will be more exciting gin brands, a new set of bars competing for the coveted title of Best Gin and Tonic in the city and, even better, the return of the much-anticipated Gin Lane party. The last time it was held was in 2019 and it was the biggest gin-related event ever. At the heart of it all, Gin Jubilee is a party where the city’s best G’n’T is crowned and people just having a lot of fun learning more about and enjoying a really good drink.

Who won the last Best Gin and Tonic title?
It was Shirmy Chan, now with Bar Terumi, who used Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin. It was unexpected. Not because Shirmy isn’t a great talent — she is incredible — but because the bar she represented then was underrated. Still, that didn’t stop her from doing really well. Also, the bartending industry still tends to be male-dominated so it was very nice to see her win.

How did the Gin Jubilee begin, though?
Gin Jubilee is actually part of a bigger, regional celebration. Neighbouring countries like Singapore and Thailand started before us. Here, we began small but with consistent growth. In 2017, we had maybe 200 pax in attendance but grew to attract a crowd of about 4,500 in 2019.


The event will see the return of the much-anticipated Gin Lane party (Photo: Wholly Spirits)

What triggered your love for a good G’n’T?
Personally, it’s really down to the weather. Anytime is good G’n’T weather in Malaysia. When it’s warm, it’s great. When it’s scorching hot, even better. I remember being in Barcelona once and the sun was really just intensely bearing down on us and nothing is as thirst-quenching as a good G’n’T.

Were you always a gin aficionado?
I’m a whisky guy through and through but it’s a hard drink in this heat. In Malaysia, I would say the optimum gin o’clock falls between the hours of 3pm and 7pm. It’s hot, you’re getting tired after a long day at work and this is the perfect pick-me-up your body needs.

What’s a good gin and food pairing?
To be honest, I’ve never really thought about it. Gin goes with mostly anything, I’d say. I love my whisky but can you imagine having it with banana leaf rice? That’s a recipe for heartburn and acid reflux.

Where in the region would you send gin lovers to?
Definitely Atlas Bar in Singapore. It’s more like a gin museum, really. There are labels you’ve never seen or heard of before. I would also say Teens of Thailand in Bangkok. It’s old school but it’s the place to go. Up north in Penang, I would say Backdoor Bodega in George Town. I’m biased but I just love its vibes.


Optimum gin o’clock falls between the hours of 3pm and 7pm (Photo: Wholly Spirits)

Tell us a little about Wholly Spirits.
It was the brainchild of a group of friends who are incredibly passionate about craft spirits, cocktails and the bartending industry. We founded the company in 2016 as an independent importer, distributor and wholesaler of fine premium spirits and related products after seeing a void in the market for craft spirits. The market was already flooded with all the big brands. We exclusively distribute some acclaimed, award-winning labels, including Hernö Gin, which was the first brand we brought in, Kyrö Distillery Company, Michter’s Whiskey, Mancino Vermouth, Diplomatico Rum, Elixir Distillers and East Imperial Tonic Water, a world-class collection of all-natural, low-sugar New Zealand-made tonic waters and mixers, inspired by a recipe that dates back to 1903!

What was your childhood ambition though?
Very few people know this but I wanted to be a plastic surgeon. Why? Because I was hooked on the drama series Nip/Tuck. I was good at biology in school but hated chemistry. And, to pursue a medical career, you’d need to be good at both. I’m not complaining though. I’ve turned my vice into a viable business.

What are you reading right now?
I’m more of an article reader versus a book reader. Usually anything that’s related to the business. DRiNK Magazine Asia is great and the managing editor, Holly Graham, is a friend. Also, is my daily read as it is imperative to keep up with all the trends out there.

And what are you listening to right now?
House music, which my wife gives me perpetual grief for, is always it. I have never cared about listening to lyrics. I’m all about the tunes and if I like them, I will play them a hundred million times on loop. Old-school Calvin Harris, Kygo and Lstn are my vibes.

What are your upcoming travel plans?
My wife and I just had a newborn, our second child, after a four-year gap, so definitely less travel is on the cards. Having said that, there are a lot of cool happenings in the region, especially in Singapore with the Cocktail Festival and The World’s 50 Best Bars. November also marks Bar Convent Berlin’s first foray outside of Germany, with Bar Convent SG. So, while I’ll be spending less time away, that doesn’t mean I will be spending less. Singapore is expensive!  

The East Imperial Gin Jubilee 2023 will be held from May 15 to 27. More info here

This article first appeared on May 15, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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