Tong Ah Distillery

Rice wine making is a novelty of the CháoShàn population. Blessed with bountiful mountain streams and paddy fields, CháoShàn was famous for sweet rice wine since the Northern Song dynasty. At the beginning of the 20th century, Tay Chek Soo founded ‘Tay Miang Huat’ wine distribution company and ‘Miang Miang’ distillery in ShànTóu city of China. Together with his four younger brothers, they became established in the industry. Three years later, their operations expanded to Singapore and across Malaysia. In Melaka, a store at Jalan Pantai and a distillery at Bukit Cina were set up under ‘Tay Miang Guan’. In Kuala Lumpur, a shop at Kuchai Lama and a distillery at Petaling Jaya were set up under ‘Tong Ah’. Though a distillery was set up in Penang, it was later destroyed during the Japanese Occupation.

Among the handful of liquor manufacturing licenses approved by the Malaysian government, the Tay family acquired two, one of them for Tong Ah Distillery. Inaugurated in 1954, it was the first industrial warehouse in Section 51, Petaling Jaya. Over half a century, Tong Ah keeps up the traditional way of producing samsu and liqueur, the equipment and tools in the distillery being in use since its commencement of business. The white European-style building stood the test of time since colonial rule, and bore witness to three generations of inheritance. The marketing manager, Jason Tay, is the grandson of the founder. Jason’s father was also committed to the distillery for the better part of his life as a microbiologist.

Since the tender age of three, Jason tagged along as his father went to work, enjoying the attention of many uncles and aunties who helped him to build castles out of empty cartons. He even had a photo of himself posing on a forklift. Eventually as he grew up, he started sharing menial tasks in the distillery, such as brushing logos onto cartons and moving cartons, until he went abroad in the 80’s. While studying engineering in the United Kingdom, Jason remain firmly attached to his family, therefore he also enrolled in courses at a prestigious brewery institute. Later on, instead of settling down in the UK, Jason chose to return to Malaysia to be with his family.

Jason recollected childhood memories when the distillery business was thriving, up to 50 staff members hailing from varying racial backgrounds work together in harmony. About 20 of them were involved in fermentation and distillation procedures, then a blend master blends the alcohol. There were also Malay staff who mainly clean and dry glass bottles. Another dozen staff were in charge of bottling, putting on product stickers, and packing into cartons. Dwindling demand for rice wine, as well as reluctance to work in 3D industries, led to reduced workforce in the distillery now.

A couple of senior employees remain in Tong Ah, including Eddie, who has been a distiller for 30-odd years, and Manjit, who is a second-generation staff. Manjit operates the industrial steam boiler, which generates hot water and steam for distillation. Manjit’s father was the first-generation boiler operator, familiar with its structure, parts, standard operating procedures, and daily maintenance. The boiler has many potential hazards which may result in explosion, therefore the operator must be very attentive as to prevent unfortunate incidents. Hence, Manjit was apprenticed to his father and later on succeeded his position in the distillery.

A distiller also plays a key role in the distillery, overseeing the fermentation and distillation processes. Also a third-generation descendant of the Tay family, Eddie and Jason are cousins. Eddie joined the distillery to fulfill his father’s wish, starting off with the basics and mastered the work routine. First of all, the rice is steamed in a huge pot, let cool, and mixed with yeast for pre-fermentation. He adds sugar and water to enhance the conversion of starch into alcohol, the mixture is then transferred to an underground tank for 1-2 weeks of anaerobic fermentation. After that, the alcohol is pumped to the distillation column through roof pipes, where steam is injected from the boiler for vaporization.

At present, Tong Ah uses a post-World War II French fractionating column. Liquid alcohol flows through the column, impeded by a series of plates which continuously allow alcohol to evaporate and rise, and water to condense. Hence, each segment towards the top of the column yields a higher alcohol content. Eddie needs to control the operating temperature below 100°C, so that water does not evaporate and dilute the alcohol. He observes the distilled alcohol through a viewing glass, employing a hydrometer to test the density, which ideally achieve 70%.

The distilled alcohol flows into a tank in the bonded warehouse, and transferred into standard 270L drums for batch quantity calculation and storage. To ease customs inspection and audit, Eddie marks the product code, batch and manufacture date on a wooden post. The distilled alcohol then undergoes mixing by the blendmaster, and infused for a few days in blending tanks before bottling. Prior to distribution and sale, excise duty must be paid and excise stamps affixed to the bottles. A number of Hakka restaurants in Kuala Lumpur use ‘Tong Ah Sam Ching’, ‘Wu Chia Pi’ and ‘Mei Kwai Lau’ in their cooking, whereas ‘Good Luck Hiong Ng’ and ‘White Stag’ are popular with bak kut teh restaurants. Meanwhile ‘Wu Chia Pi’ is also used as ritual offerings, ‘White Stag’ for confinement food, and the elderly consume medicinal liquors.

In the event of Jason’s father death two years ago, Jason resolved to invigorate the distillery’s former glory, so that this century-old craftsmanship gains better exposure. Complying with current trends, Tong Ah produces glutinous rice wine with a variety of innovative flavours, as well as adopting social media marketing. On the other hand, the distillery is open for tours, Jason is happy to share his knowledge.

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Text: Daniel Lim & Pua Hui Wen

有你 UNI Production
Producer : Mok Yii Chek
Coordinator : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang
Video Editor : Amelia Lim
Production Assistant : Michael Lerk
Music : Valentine


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