In recent years, Japanese whisky has garnered an almost cult-like status amongst connoisseurs. So much so, in fact, that its stock is depleting at an alarming rate. And now, the country is applying its meticulous know-how in distilling to gin-making, and gin lovers around the world couldn’t be happier.
There are several reasons why Japan is naturally gifted when it comes to making gin. Firstly, there’s the foundation. Gin may be a new foray for many of the long-established distilleries in Japan, but it’s often made from a base spirit that the distillery has perfected through generations. The high-quality rice or sweet potato shochu often produces a gentler gin that has a beautifully soft mouthfeel.
Next, there’s the botanicals. Though juniper is the dominant component, gin is open to wide interpretations when it comes to the inclusion of other ingredients. Japan has a bounty of unique produce that have cemented themselves in the world’s collective palate – think yuzu, green tea and sansho pepper – and these help create gins that are immediately familiar yet still distinctly Japanese.
These days, we’re also seeing artisanal Japanese gins breaking new ground by championing unusual, but still native, ingredients such as umbrella pine, kombu (seaweed) and shiitake mushrooms, thus creating new types of gin unlike anything you’ve tasted.
Kyoya Distillery has captured the sunniness of Miyazaki prefecture (in Kyushu, the most southwesterly of Japan’s four main islands) with a warm, citrus-forward arrangement of botanicals: local hyuganatsu (a citrus that’s like a cross between a grapefruit and lemon), the lime-like fruit hebesu, and golden kumquats. Kyushu is traditionally known for its shochu and Kyoya Distillery is, in fact, a revered shochu producer founded in 1834. For Hinata, the company naturally uses shochu as the base spirit, with botanicals added for the second distillation.
On the nose, you’ll notice the refreshing character of juniper. The gin is softly aromatic, with warmth coming not just from the citrus but from cardamom and camomile as well. The finish, on the other hand, is a gentle spicy twist derived from a varied mix of other botanicals including fennel, black sesame, cedar, ginger and cinnamon. Skip the tonic and add a splash of soda water to appreciate the full, delicate spectrum of this alluring gin.
A global success story and probably Japan’s best-known gin, Roku, which means ‘six’ in Japanese, is named after the spirit’s six botanicals: sakura flower and leaf, green tea, gyokuro (premium green tea), sansho pepper and yuzu peel. These quintessential Japanese flavours are also showcased prominently on the hexagonal bottle design.
It’s a beautifully aromatic and harmonious gin, perfect for those who prefer a more subdued juniper flavour. The initial sweet, floral aroma is a crowd-pleaser, which is then rounded off with a crisp spicy-citrusy finish – but it’s the smooth, buttery texture that will have you continue sipping.
For those of you who like your gin on the woody, earthy side of things – or are simply up for trying something new – Kozue could be the one for you. Nakano BC in Wakayama prefecture, which has expertise in producing sake and umeshu (plum liquor), has selected koyamaki (Japanese umbrella pine) as Kozue’s predominant aromatic informant, making it the first gin to use these endemic pine needles as a botanical. Added to this are the pepper pungency of sansho, bursts of berries, mandarin and lemon peels, and juniper berries. The juniper aroma is somewhat muted by the pine needles, meaning this is not a traditional dry gin. From start to finish, Kozue drives a green, forest-fresh agenda, with subtle hints of citrus, mint and spice in between.
A highly regarded Kagoshima shochu producer since 1883, Komasa Jyozo’s first foray into craft gin last year produced a bright, citrus-centric spirit featuring the world’s smallest mandarin, the Sakurajima komikan, grown on the eponymous volcanic island. Its second gin, created from a base of rice shochu, champions another quintessential Japanese ingredient – hojicha, or roasted green tea – and it is sensational.
While tea is a common botanical in Japanese gin, roasted green tea is an ingenious twist, as the heating process eliminates the caffeine bitterness to create a tea that’s deeply aromatic, more mellow and less astringent. This is a perfect foil for the sharp juniper berries while the addition of Japanese cypress enhances the forest aroma of hojicha. Add a little bit of tonic water to really open up the warm, uniquely Japanese bouquet.
This dry spirit from a dedicated gin distillery in Kyoto is arguably the first Japanese gin to get the world’s attention, with lots of hype surrounding its launch back in 2016. The flagship Ki No Bi is made using the famous water from the sakebrewing district of Fushimi and is built on a base of rice spirit. The 11 featured botanicals are divided into six categories – base, citrus, tea, herbal, spice and floral – with each distilled separately before blending. So while the zesty yuzu dominates, you’ll still get a sense of the other ingredients in this perfectly balanced bottle: there’s an underscore of gyokuro tea and spicy sansho pepper, followed by a warm ginger finish.
Since then, The Kyoto Distillery has been taking inspiration from the tradition and heritage of Japan when creating various expressions of dry gin, including the Old Tom-style gin Ki No Tou that’s sweetened with Okinawan black sugar.
Transport yourself to Hokkaido with a nip of Benizakura Distillery’s 9148 gin. Its bounty of local botanicals includes kombu, shiitake mushroom and dried daikon, which imbue the flavour with a distinct umami quality, balanced by the strong presence of juniper.
There’s a total of 15 to 20 botanicals, with other interesting local additions including horseradish, lavender, red shiso and soba (buckwheat). Benizakura doesn’t stick to just one recipe, but rather releases small batches of around 500 bottles, with each displaying the recipe number to which it belongs. These releases are tweaked to match the seasons; for example, spring’s batch 3892 used sakura petals collected from the distillery’s grounds.
The name is a homage to George Orwell’s seminal ‘1984’, but, conversely, was also chosen to express support for freedom of thought and ideas in society, which are reflected in this unconventional, free-spirited approach.
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