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Gin in Japan

Japanese Whisky has been flying off the shelves over the past few years, seeing an ever-increasing rate at which its stocks are near depleted upon release. Most recently, the 17-Year Hibiki has become the treasure of all spirits collectors’ hunts as production is ceased on this full, sweet, and oaky beauty. The price? No less than a few hundred, if you’re really lucky.

Most recently, the 17-Year Hibiki has become the treasure of all spirits collectors’ hunts as production is ceased on this full, sweet, and oaky beauty. The price? No less than a few hundred, if you’re really lucky

Of course, it has never been a matter of hype_the craft is and has always been practiced with such meticulous care, complete thoughtfulness, and full intention that a pristine product was only guaranteed every bottle. Too good, in fact, that demand has far exceeded what was ever projected, and stocks going forward are increased at far higher levels.

Japan has proven itself both quickly and incomparably in the world of spirits via Whisky. And, in combination with a relative shortage of its famous Whisky stock, I think we’ll see an opportune moment for the world to explore and open its arms to the greater prevalence of some other spirits making their debut from Japan.

While Japan has made many of its own spirits for quite some time from, of course, the usual Sake to the lesser-known Japanese Rums, the awareness of the Japanese spirit and distribution of these outside of the country has been minimal.

The craft is and has always been practiced with such meticulous care, complete thoughtfulness, and full intention that a pristine product was only guaranteed every bottle

Today or perhaps tomorrow, and certainly not many more days after that, I do believe we’ll see this shift. Like many other “foreign” concepts adopted but adapted into Japanese society, I think the international spirits world is truly in for a treat in the Japanese renditions of the library of global spirits. Today, we’ll take a look at the Japanese Gin scene.

The Start – the Key Players

Suntory, which has since become an international spirits company, first started with Yamazaki, Hakushu, and the aforementioned famous Hibiki Whiskies. Its global acquisitions include some of the most well-known brands in the business, including Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark in America to the Scotch world of Laphroaig and Bowmore. While Suntory had previously offered Spanish and English Gin labels (Larious and Sipsmith), it did not release its first Japanese Gin until May of last year, which was then released internationally later that summer.

Asahi Breweries, one of the largest and most recognizable beer brands in Japan, also eased into the Gin realm via Whisky; you may recognize the names Nikka and Yoichi as international chart-toppers.

Yoichi Distillery

 

Ki No Bi is a smaller, lesser-known name in comparison to the Asahi and Suntory giants, but has quickly become a competitive heavyweight contender to the two. Ki No Bi is Japan’s first dedicated craft Gin-only distillery located in the historic Kyoto, and was founded just about three years ago in 2015. The distillery sources locally whenever it can, bringing a true Japanese-inspired flavor profile to its Gins.

There’s an incredibly heavy emphasis on not only locally sourced ingredients but regional ingredient specialties, and seasonality is built into the fundamental fabric of nearly everything Japan makes

How It’s Different

As we’ll dissect through the following three profiles, you’ll see a trend; much like any foreign concept or tangible adopted by the country, Japan tends to put its own signature twist on Gin in adopting it as its own. There’s an incredibly heavy emphasis on not only locally sourced ingredients but regional ingredient specialties, and seasonality is built into the fundamental fabric of nearly everything Japan makes. Likewise, all three of the following Whiskies have core botanicals so location-specific and so much outside of what we’ve ever gotten out of any other Gin before, yet maintain that central Gin essence. Let’s take a look.

The Bottles

Roku

Out of Suntory is Roku, which means six in Japanese, and is named after its six main botanicals, all of Japanese origin: cherry blossom, cherry leaves, sansho pepper, yuzu peel, sencha green tea, and gyoruko green tea. The other botanicals lending their subtle notes include orange and lemon peel, along with cardamom, cinnamon, and coriander seeds.

Roku is citrus-forward, with a bit of a buttery side. The cherry blossom is subtle, with a hint of a brighter, grassier mixed herb. The special edition, the Roku GTR, released only in airports and other travel-based retail locations, features heavier notes of the famous Japanese sakura.

Nikka Coffey Gin

Yes, Nikka Coffey can also be found in Whisky form, but the first (and hopefully not last) Gin out of Asahi is certainly not to be missed.

The Nikka Gin is distilled in Coffey stills, a traditional Irish continuous still, like its Nikka Whisky. It uses eleven different botanicals, including sansho, apple, and the Japanese citrus fruits yuzu, kabosu, and amanatsu. It features a uniquely tart characteristic on the nose, but unravels into a softer sweetness as it moves through a fruitful and sansho-filled journey.

Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin

Much like the basis of the quintessential Japanese spirit, Sake, rice and water from Fushimi make up the foundation of this Gin.

Eleven botanicals go into the mix, which are divided into six different groups, distilled separately, and then blended toward the end of the process. The groups are the base (juniper, orris, and hinoki), citrus (yuzu and lemon), herb (sansho pepper and kinome sprout), spice (ginger), fruity and floral (bamboo leaves and red perilla), and finally tea (gyokuro green tea). Like Roku, it’s a very Japanese-specific blend of ingredients.

The foundational Gin of Ki No Bi (which means “the beauty of the seasons,” by the way) is its Kyoto Dry Gin. Impeccable clear, it is yuzu-forward with a crisp sansho pepper lingering through the finish on its subtly warm and spicy ginger notes.

Outside of the original Kyoto Dry Gin, Ki No Bi also offers a Navy Strength Gin and a Ki No Tea Dry Gin, featuring teas from a most prestigious Meiji-era tea-grower.

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Written by Bart Laming

Bart is the publisher and editor of Old Liquors Magazine

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