It all began in 2016, when the Kyoto distillery claimed the title of Japan’s very first artisanal Gin maker. The distillery’s flagship, Ki No Bi, utilized local ingredients around Kyoto, and used a unique production method, which saw the botanicals distilled separately in groups, before being blended together.
The following year, in 2017, Suntory and Nikka released their own Japanese craft Gins, featuring Japanese botanicals like yuzu, sakura blossoms, green tea, and sansho pepper. The Gins went global, now sold across Europe, the US, and Asia.
The most recent stage of this continuing boom has seen small Shochu and Sake makers turn to Gin-making, following in the footsteps of the drinks giants before them. To enter the competition powerfully, these small distillers started using truly unusual botanicals in each recipe.
One Gin, the Kozue, features Japanese pine needles, while the Masahiro Gin sees the addition of goya, a type of bitter melon from the tropical island of Okinawa. Many crafts Gins have, and are continuing to come out of Japan.
Here are some of the best so far.
1. Suntory RokuRoku, meaning ‘six’ in Japanese, is a name chosen to illustrate the six Japanese botanicals featured in Suntory’s craft Gin recipe. These include cherry blossoms and leaves, yuzu, sansho pepper, and a variety of teas. The expression includes eight more botanicals, traditional to Gin-making, in order to deliver balance. Instantly successful, Roku launched in the summer of 2017 domestically, before reaching Western shores nearing the end of the year.
The Roku is one of the most balanced Gins to come out of Japan. While the nose and palate greatly showcase the yuzu citrus, pastries, creamy toffee, and pepper make the expression both lively and smooth, delivering a creamy, satisfying experience.
2. Nikka Coffey GinNikka’s Coffey range is named after Aeneas Coffey, the inventor of the Coffey still AKA column still used today to distil most Gin, Vodka, and grain Whisky. The range began with the world-renowned Coffey Malt and Coffey Grain, before the Coffey Gin and Vodka were added. The Coffey Gin features the same, simplistic bottle design as the other bottles. The base spirit comprises of barley and corn, while the Japanese botanicals within are very citrus-forward.
Yuzu, amanatsu, kabosu, hirami citrus fruits, and orange all deliver a lively, fresh experience. Aromas of orange and yuzu dominate the nose; some pepper comes through after some time. The palate bursts with sour lemon, before turning sweeter with notes of tangerine and pineapple. The finish lingers with pepper taking the stage, as the fruit dies away.
3. Ki No TeaBest-known for their flagship Ki No Bi, the Kyoto distillery team deliver the Ki No Tea, a Gin made in collaboration with one of Kyoto’s most famous tea growers, Hori-Shichimeien, which has been in the business since 1879, during Japan’s Meiji Era.
The Ki No Tea features premium tea varieties, including Gyokuro and Tencha, which create an elegantly sweet character. As with many Japanese Gins, the first aroma is yuzu. However, the nose is quickly transformed by the tea, bringing through rich, matcha sweetness. The palate is silky and very smooth, as the matcha and green tea are joined by creamy chocolate and buttery notes. The finish is long, and sees juniper make as appearance alongside the re-emerging citrus.
Sakurao distillery is owned by the company behind the well-known Togouchi range of blended Whiskies, comprising of both Japanese and imported spirit. Based in Hiroshima, the distillery ultimately aims to release Hiroshima’s very first single malt Whisky, but that won’t be until after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
4. Sakurao Limited
In the meantime, the distillery has released some of the most flavourful and exciting Gins to be made by a small Japanese distiller. Of the two Gins released, the Limited edition is the most unique, featuring, perhaps, the most unusual list of botanicals of any other expression from Japan. Featuring over 15 botanicals local to Hiroshima, the Limited release includes hinoki cypress, ginger, Japanese juniper, wasabi, and Hiroshima oysters!
The Gin is balanced and very complex, different to any traditional expression you’ve tried. Don’t worry, it doesn’t taste like oysters, but has a pleasant maritime touch to it. The nose brings citrus and cypress, with a hint of spice which builds on the palate. The ginger is strong, joined by wasabi and juniper, before sweet citrus leads to a long, rich finish.