The gin craze is still booming and new markets are entering the fray (keep your eyes on South America and India). With massive success in the whisky sector, it’s no surprise that Japan is creating gin. What’s so fantastic about new countries taking an interest in gin is their use of local botanicals.
I’ve taken a look at four Japanese gins, their ingredients and production processes – all of which are remarkably different.
Nikka Coffey Gin
This gin is named after the “Coffey Still”, a traditional continuous still that Nikka uses to produce its signature grain whiskies.
Nikki Coffey gin has 11 botanicals, traditional; juniper, angelica, coriander, lemon peel, orange peel and local- yuzu (like a cross between a lemon and mandarin), kabosu (related to yuzu and used instead of vinegar in some dishes), amanatsu (another citrus), and shequasar (a sort of flat lemon) apple juice and Sanshō pepper.
Citrus dominates the aroma and flavour of this gin. It’s a complete full-bodied, punchy flavour bomb. Juicy and peppery. Ideal in a gin and tonic.
Roku – Suntory
Suntory owns some of the best known whisky brands in the world but in Japan, they’re behind Hakushu, Hibiki and Yamasaki. Yamasaki put Japanese whisky firmly on the map when whisky critic, Jim Murray, declared it the “best in the world”.
‘Roku’ means 6, referencing the 6 botanicals used to make the gin. Suntory owns a craft distillery called ‘Liquor Atelier’ which own four different types of pot stills. Each botanical is distilled separately and in keeping with their character. For example cherry blossom is distilled using vacuum distillation to protect the delicate flavours, while yuzu is distilled in a traditional pot still to extract maximum flavour.
Juniper, coriander angelica(root and seed), cardamom, cinnamon, bitter orange peel, lemon peel plus sakura (cherry blossom) flower and leaf, Sencha tea, Gyokuro tea (green tea grown in the shade rather than full sun), Sanshō pepper and Yuzu peel
Citrus is still obvious on the nose but the flavour is balanced with the cherry blossom and the earthier botanicals. It has a great peppery finish too. It’s a more complex gin than Nikka Coffey and would work across a variety of cocktails, particularly in a martini.
Ki No Bi
Ki No Bi gin (‘The Beauty of the Seasons’) comes from The Kyoto distillery which was only founded in 2015, but is already making a name for itself. Head Distiller, Alex Davies, has a strong gin pedigree. After finishing his studies at Heriot Watt he went on to Chase and then Cotswold Distillery before heading off to Japan.
It’s the first Japanese gin made in Kyoto and the team wanted to create a gin using native ingredients wherever possible. As a nod to the heritage of the area, they use a rice spirit base from the famous sake–brewing district, Fushimi. Their botanicals in to six different categories: Base, Citrus, Tea, Herbal, Spice and Floral. Each category is distilled separately and then blended together.
Ki No Bi Botanicals
Juniper, orris root, hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood chips make up the base botanicals. Lemon and Yuzu are the citrus. Gyokuro ( a type of tea grown in the shade) is obviously in the tea group. Ginger is the spice component, while red shiso and bamboo leaves are the floral botanicals. Sanshō pepper and Kinome (a Japanese herb in the same family as Sanshō) fall under the herbal category
Juniper is more pronounced (hooray!) in both aroma and flavour than the other gins in the group. Yuzu is there with hints of bitterness from the tea. The full-bodied flavour is rich and it has a lengthy dry finish with plenty of heat and spice.
Wa Bi gin
Wa Bi Gin (‘Japan Beautiful Gin’) is produced at the Tsunuki distillery, owned by Hombo Shuzo, who also own the Mars Shinshu distillery. They also use a base of rice spirit which has been twice distilled.
Juniper berries, cinnamon leaf, shell ginger, bitter orange, yuzu, kumquat, lemon, ginger, green tea leaves, and perilla (part of the mint family).
This one took me a couple of times to get my head around. Initially, I was getting a lot of malt on the nose and palate but on revisiting (and after tasting some sake for comparison – tough gig!) I think that it’s the rice spirit pushing through the botanicals a little. Definitely one for the citrus gin lovers among you, the inclusion of ginger creates a lovely warming finish. Not my favourite of the four, but I’ll be giving it another go for sure!
Verdict? My pick of the bunch has to be Ki No Bi, followed closely by Roku. It will be interesting to see what Japan will bring to the gin category over the next few years as the existing whisky distilleries expand their portfolios.