Japan’s gin makers are bringing their own twists to the juniper spirit category
By Jacopo Mazzeo
First distilled in 1936 by what was then known as Kotobukiya – today’s Suntory – Hermes Dry Gin still populates Japanese online forums and auction sites. Its launch marked Japan’s pioneering attempt to venture into gin making, but the spirit took several decades to conquer the heart of the Japanese public.
“We started importing small Japanese whisky producers in 2005,” says British spirits industry veteran – and Kyoto Distillery co-founder – Marcin Miller of his Number One Drinks Company. “Ten years later, the landscape had changed significantly and we thought it was time for a fresh challenge… I called David Croll, who had been living in Japan for several decades already, and said,
‘I have an idea: gin!’.”
Making the most of Croll and his wife Noriko’s independent drinks distribution businesses in Japan, they co-founded Kyoto Distillery and launched the first modern Japanese gin in 2016, Ki No Bi. Miller and Croll’s Nipponic venture kickstarted a gin revolution in the country: a year later, Beam Suntory and Nikka unveiled their Roku and Coffey Gin respectively, and a growing number of Japanese gins has followed.
The onset and growth of the Japanese gin industry have experienced a considerable amount of foreign input. Miller and Croll’s played a key role in the category’s boom and other brands have been created as a result of overseas investments, too. Etsu Gin, made at Asahikawa Distillery on Hokkaido island, was developed by French drinks specialist BBC Spirits, while Will Lowe of the UK’s Cambridge Distillery claims to have pioneered the category with the launch of his Japanese Gin in 2014.
Given the extent of non-Japanese input into the category, what really makes Japanese gin ‘Japanese’ is up for debate. For House of Suntory’s brand ambassador, James Bowker, Nipponic mindset and know-how are crucial to produce a truly Japanese liquid. “There are lots of gins on the market that are inspired by Japan,” says Bowker, “but very few are made by Japanese craftspeople in a Japanese distillery. Suntory has been producing gin [in the country] since 1936,” he explains, hinting at Hermes Dry Gin, “and Roku is the culmination of that extensive experience. In particular, our distillers and blenders have a much more nuanced understanding of Japanese flavours and botanicals and therefore blend an authentic-tasting gin, not one dominated by faux-Japanese aromas.”
Aware of his alien status, Miller reassures that Ki No Bi gin shows true Japanese character by expressing a well-defined place. “Ours is more than a Japanese gin, it is a Kyoto gin. Its core is a deep-rooted appreciation of Kyoto, its culture, its craft, its centuries of tradition.”
Miller highlights that the distillery cultivates close relationships with its suppliers, with the staff getting deeply involved in the selection of the botanicals, and that the company tries to instil Japan’s ‘kaizen’ philosophy of constant incremental improvement in everyone who works for the distillery. “We go and pick the yuzu ourselves and they make a bespoke tea blend made for us. The guy that grows ginger for us rests our ginger in a cave that his father dug in his house, and that time reduces the volatility without impacting its flavour. It’s this level of collaboration with our suppliers that makes our gin Japanese.
“I think now there are over 30 companies in Japan making gin,” he continues. “Some are making serious gin, but others are jumping on the bandwagon and adding juniper to re-distilled shochu and are simply taking advantage of that market dynamic.”
Citrus, teas and lip-numbing pepper
For Davide Mangiamele, bar manager at London’s Mr Fogg’s & Gin Parlour, it is the selection of botanicals that ultimately contributes to defining the character of Japanese gin. “In order to stand out from the existing market, Japanese gin makers offer a deliberately reduced use of ingredients,” says Mangiamele. “These ingredients are often unfamiliar to foreign drinkers, setting their expressions apart from their Western counterparts.”
Producers such as Kyoto Distillery and Suntory tend to build their gins around six flavour categories: base (composed of gin’s traditional botanicals), citrus, tea, herbal, spice, and fruity/floral. Yuzu is Japan’s go-to citrus, yet some distilleries champion more left-field fruits: kabosu, amanatsu, and shequasar, for instance, complement a range of classic gin botanicals in Nikka Coffey Gin. Tea notes often come from sencha or gyokuro teas, while sanshō, which has lip-tingling qualities similar to Sichuan peppercorns, is widely used for pepperiness. Sakura (cherry) flowers and leaves, which are common in Japanese cooking, are often part of the blend, too. Meanwhile, unusual ingredients include ume, a tangy and sour japanese plum, featured in Kaikyō Distillery’s 135° East Hyogo Dry Gin, as well as hinoki wood chips, red shiso leaves, kinome leaves and bamboo, all used in Kyoto’s Ki No Bi. “Bamboo might not bring much to the palate,” says Miller, “but when you taste its distillate on its own you can see how it acts as a backbone to the final blend.”
The extra ingredient
Japanese distilleries are free to use whatever alcohol as a base for their gins. BBC’s Etsu, for instance, is made with sugarcane molasses, while Kyoya Distillery in Miyazaki uses a sweet potato shochu base. Rice distillate, however, is a popular choice. “We tasted all sorts of base alcohol but the one we landed upon is rice spirit,” says Miller, who considers rice a crucial ingredient in Ki No Bi gin. “It costs roughly three times more than other base spirits but given the cultural significance of rice in Japan, and also its flavour and mouthfeel, it becomes an essential element of the final product.”
Kimio Yonezawa, master distiller and blender at his family-owned Kaikyō Distillery, employs a rice-based spirit then adds a touch of distilled Junmai saké to the final blend to reinforce his 135° East Hyogo Dry Gin’s rice character. “Not only is rice at the heart of Japan’s cuisine and history, but Junmai saké is made from Yamadanishki rice, known as the ‘king of rice’. Once distilled, it has a typical soft sweetness, which gently envelops and complements the Japanese botanicals,” he says.
For some, the water used to dilute the liquid to bottling strength defines the final product, too. BBC president Bogdan Tanasoiu claims that Etsu is diluted with spring water from the Taisetsu Mountains in Hokkaido, while Miller says Kyoto Distillery sources its water from a well in Fushimi, “where all the best saké comes from. The water lends that wonderful softness, which adds to the overall mouthfeel.”
With such a diversity of styles, Nipponic gins are hardly definable by one quintessential organoleptic profile, yet Mangiamele argues that the term ‘Japanese gin’ describes a uniform category nonetheless, one that has enriched the spirits and cocktail world with novel and unique flavours: “As the gin industry continues to grow globally, Japanese distillers have entered into the gin arena in a big way. They have brought some unique and interesting offerings to the gin table all distilled and produced with a very ‘Japanese’ approach.”