Add the word “Japanese” in front of any product and you can usually be assured of a level of quality that comes from their dogged pursuit of perfection.
It happened with the country’s whisky; after almost a century of quietly making its own iteration of Scotland’s most famous spirit, Whisky Magazine crowned Nikka’s 10-year-old Yoichi “Best of the Best” in 2001. Two years later, Suntory’s 12-year-old Yamazaki claimed the gold at the International Spirits Challenge. By 2015 Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible named another Yamazaki “World Whisky of the Year”, eventually resulting in a worldwide shortage of Japanese whisky.
Thankfully, Japanese distillers have given us a new obsession to tide us over – gin.
Like its whisky, Japanese gin was being made long before the rest of the world took notice. Suntory was the first, making Hermes Gin from as far back as 1936 before it was discontinued due to growing interest in beer, whisky and shochu. But the recent craft gin boom has revived local interest in the aromatic spirit.
Former whisky exporters David Croll and Marcin Miller founded Japan’s first dedicated craft gin distillery, The Kyoto Distillery, just three years ago. It makes Ki No Bi gin, which was recently awarded a Gold Medal at last year’s IWSC awards.
Not wanting to be outdone by an independent distiller, industry titans quickly scrambled onto the bandwagon. Beam Suntory acquired controlling interest in London-based Sipsmith Gin in 2016 and a year later, launched Roku Gin. Following closely behind is Asahi Brewery, which released its Nikka Coffey Gin, named after the Yoichi distillery’s signature Coffey stills.
Unaged spirits get the majority of their flavours from their raw ingredients, and few spirits have more of it than gin.
So, what do they taste like? Given the key ingredient is still juniper, gins from the island nation are still recognisable as a gin. But give them a second whiff and another second on your palate and you’ll notice flavours you’ve never before experienced in this spirit. The magic lies in Japan’s unique botanicals.
Unaged spirits get the majority of their flavours from their raw ingredients, and few spirits have more of it than gin. Out of the 14 botanicals found in Roku (Japanese for six) gin, six of them are Japanese, such as cherry blossoms, sencha and yuzu. Nikka Coffey Gin boasts a medley of citrus fruits like kabosu, amanatsu and shikuwasa, with apples and sansho pepper providing balance to the tang. The Mars Tsunuki Distillery takes it a step further by using a shochu base (instead of a neutral spirit) in its Wa Bi gin, giving it a strong grain flavour.
Given the seasonal nature of the botanicals, they are often grouped into flavour categories (such as peppery, citrus and traditional for Nikka Coffey) then distilled and stored separately.
And then there’s the obsession with “craft”, and Croll believes there are two factors that are driving this trend: “Firstly, there’s a generation of risk-taking entrepreneurs with access to funding and the appetite to explore new production techniques and flavour profiles. The second is demand; there is a global trend that is moving away from mass-produced foods and drinks, and toward passionately crafted, artisanal products. This trend is by no means confined to gin but can also be seen with beers, breads, coffees, chocolate and so on.”
Ki No Bi has done well to play up that aspect. The water it uses comes from Kyoto’s Fushimi district, known for a purity and softness highly prized by the area’s top sake producers. Assistant distiller Yoichi Motoki spent a year sourcing for ingredients for the distillery’s first batch of gin, then spent days hand-peeling a year’s supply of lemons and yuzu he procured from local farmers.
Even the packaging has romantic provenance. The glass is hand-blown by Osaka’s 112-year-old Sakai Glass Company while the label is made by Kira Karacho, the oldest karakami (washi paper decorated using woodblock prints) atelier in Japan with a history dating back to 1624.
It’s not just the Japanese who have noticed the potential in its flora. The idea of using Japanese botanicals was actually first conceived by The Cambridge Distillery when it launched its Japanese Gin. It may be distilled in the UK but its botanicals include shiso leaves, sesame seeds, cucumber, sansho pepper and yuzu.
Regardless of where it’s being distilled, the allure of Japanese gin is growing.
Additionally, after a trip to the Japanese Alps, entrepreneurs Craig Fell and John Thompson decided to enlist the help of the Langley Distillery to create their own Japanese-inspired gin – Kuro. It gets its name, which means “black” in Japanese, from bamboo activated charcoal, a key ingredient that joins silver birch bark and spruce needles for an earthy take on London Dry Gin.
Regardless of where it’s being distilled, the allure of Japanese gin is growing. “Japanese culture is in a very exciting place at the moment, be it fashion, manga, food or any number of arts and crafts,” Croll continues. “And with the upcoming Rugby World Cup and Olympic Games, we feel that Japan is very firmly going to be on people’s radars for the foreseeable future and that Japanese gin will become an integral part of this cultural portfolio.”
We’re inclined to agree, because Japan’s distillers finally have a product that showcases the country’s terroir, while international players now have an entirely new category of ingredients to play with. Though there are only a handful of producers on the market right now, we’re sure it’s just a matter of time before Japan does for gin what it did for whisky, which is to craft a love letter to this bounteous land.