Strategically, after careful steps and preparation, the largest whisky companies in Japan—namely Nikka and Suntory—are entering the booming craft gin scene.
Just last year, Suntory acquired the artisanal London gin distillery, Sipsmith.
Unlike the UK, Japan isn’t traditionally a gin-making country. So, in an attempt to bring something exotic to the highly competitive international gin market, Japanese botanicals define most of these new Japanese gin expressions— a point which is marketed heavily.
Can these products actually compete with other premium gins on the market? Will Japan’s gins receive the wide recognition and fame Japanese whisky enjoys today? This all remains to be seen. As we wait, let’s take a closer look at these new products.
Suntory is the most popular whisky producer in Japan and the third largest drinks company in the world, so we’ll lead with their new Roku gin.
Roku means six in Japanese and refers to the six different Japanese botanicals added during distillation. Cherry blossoms, cherry leaves, different types of green tea, Japanese pepper and yuzu citrus. Sounds pretty delicious, right?
Suntory rolled their gin out in Japan first, in July 2017. It was made available in Germany, Taiwan and South East Asian markets starting in the fall of 2017. Expect an announcement for other major markets soon. If you just need to taste the Roku right away, it is available from a few online retailers.
The Roku starts off with a burst of citrus on the nose, from the aforementioned Japanese yuzu fruit, which moves gently on to the palate. Joined by buttery pastries and a velvety mouthfeel, the experience comes to an end with a long, slightly spicy finish.
Like the Roku, the Nikka Coffey gin launched in Japan first, in late June of 2017. Western markets received their allotment in September 2017.
The Coffey gin features 11 botanicals in both Japanese and traditional styles. The Japanese botanicals include yuzu, sansho pepper, kabosu, amanatsu and shequasar. The rest are more traditional to gin-making, namely juniper, angelica, coriander, lemon and orange peel.
On the palate, the Nikka Coffey gin brings forth a subtle tartness, but gradually mellows out and softens. The citrus fruits become stronger as the palate adjusts, finally coming to close with sweet notes of apple.
With 12,000 bottles available globally, you can expect a few to reach liquor stores near you.
The Ki No Bi premiered in 2016. The Kyoto Distillery claims to have produced Japan’s first artisanal gin—a rather prestigious status. The distillery works closely with the surrounding area of Kyoto and its wonderful culture, which can be seen in the company’s branding and marketing strategies.
The most interesting fact about the Ki No Bi is that it’s made using a unique method of distillation. The botanicals are broken down into six different groups, distilled separately, then blended together to create the final product.
With a heavy base of local ingredients, the Ki No Bi includes yellow yuzu from Kyoto, bamboo, gyokuro tea, ginger and Japanese hinoki wood chips in its botanical bill.
Thick and fruity, the Ki No Bi dominates with citrus on the nose and palate, with spice lingering in the background. Citrus, pepper and ginger bring the experience to a warm, refreshing finish.
As some of these gins haven’t reached European or U.S. shores yet, it’s hard to tell how they will fare in the exciting craft gin market. Will they start receiving stellar reviews by experts and awards at global spirits competitions, like Japanese whisky does each and every year?
While no one can predict the future, it’s worth mentioning that the Ki No Bi recently received a Gold Award at the 2017 International Wine & Spirits Competition in the Contemporary Gin category.
Needless to say, Japanese craft gin is off to a running start.
Ready to try some Japanese gin?