Debonair distiller and co-creator of Grandma Jinn and Lamai Spirits
Born in Taiwan, but raised in the USA—starting in the early 80s—Alex Chou began Interning at blue chip companies such as IBM and JP Morgan even before graduating university.
What brought you to Thailand?
I had gotten out of a business in NYC, took off golfing across America, and came to spend the 2006 year-end holidays with an amazing family in Thailand—my University of Michigan alumnus. Since then, I have done agriculture, food processing, and alternative energy related work for them whilst also personally investing in small companies in those areas and building local “communities”. More than 11 years have passed since I have used Bangkok as base, returning to my homes in Taiwan and California regularly. To be honest, I struggled with Thailand for a decade but finally made peace and now can’t say enough good things about the country.
When did you become involved in the gin business?
As part of my investment thesis, I explored how I could create a more egalitarian and sustainable world; improving farmers’ livelihood, land, air, and water qualities via changes in supply chain, value added processing, and waste reduction. I created some farming experiments, including making biodiesel and ethyl alcohol at home. I began exploring opportunities in producing consumable alcohol in early 2013, due in part to the ridiculous excise import taxes and resulting high price tags on imported booze in Thailand. Within a year I had flown to Scotland to learn how make whiskies and gins—passing exhaustive exams—and made an investment into the company producing ‘Lamai Spirit’, a white distilled alcohol made from sugarcane. I asked local craft spirit importer Bootlegger’s Trading to distribute Lamai, and their owner also asked me to help develop a gin, which he wanted to be called ‘Grandma Jinn’, as a play on words. Of course, Siam’s alcohol regulations remain in the dark ages so whilst in every other country Lamai would fall into the rum category and GJ a gin, we can technically only call and label them as lao-khao or “white spirits”.
What term best describes you: Bon vivant, Man-about-town, Gadfly, or Dilettante?
I am surprised you didn’t include “debutante”. If I had a choice, I would choose the Western term “Renaissance Man”. Within the traditional ethnic Chinese framework of hierarchy, one aimed to become learned (of classics, history, philosophy, politics, arts, etc.) in addition to enjoying all things in life.
Has Bangkok finally become a sophisticated urbane metropolis?
Bangkok is a great city for bourgeoisie consumerism and general mayhem, but the funding, infrastructure, support, and interest in fine and performance arts is a complete joke. Most Thais seek out sanuk in general. And most foreigners end up here as a result of chasing adventure and excitement. As a result, one can find nearly everything here—despite laws and regulations—any time of day and throughout the year. I find Bangkok, like Berlin, at an interesting point of inflection. Both cities are affordable, attract bohemian types (including the new digital nomads), have decent infrastructure, and hold an edge. Hong Kong, London, New York, and Tokyo are fantastic cities, but have simply gotten too expensive and structured for the avant-garde mad creative thinkers and tinkerers.
I know you like to splurge, but where are some places in Bangkok where you like to go to “slum it”?
I could spend an entire day on Charoengkrung. It’s one of my favourite neighborhoods. I would start with dim sum brunch, catch a coffee and some art at Bridge, stop into TCDC and Warehouse 30, eat a Pakistani lunch, take a commuter boat up the river, then come back to bar and restaurant hop—Jua, 80/20, Tropic City, Foo John, and/or Rebel Café.
Is the average hi-so Thai person even capable of slumming it, or is Thailand’s social divide far too engrained?
The super affluent, those in the Forbes billionaires list as well as some power politic types, regularly eat at their local haunts. They may come in their VIP vans, but they sit on the sidewalk like everyone else. I find that those who are insecure about their social position are the ones most deeply ingrained in consumerism, brand obsession, and status quo. And they hold the most contempt for “slumming it”.
What defines “luxury” for you?
To me, “luxury” is the freedom to explore. In the eating-dining-travel context, it’s not just what gets listed in Michelin, Asia’s 50 Best, Top Table, Trip Advisor, or The Bar Awards (of which I am a panel member). In other words, I think bespoke or custom-made for me and my taste makes me happiest.
Interview by Bruce Scott