Japanese distilleries have a reputation for crafting shochu and whisky with a near-obsessive attention to detail, but over the past few years, it’s their growing crop of gins that has gained a cult following amongst American bartenders. Native botanicals like sakura (cherry blossom), hinoki (Japanese cypress), gyokuro (a variety of shade-grown green tea), sanshō (a close relative of the Sichuan peppercorn, with the same lip-tingling qualities) and many varieties of indigenous citrus—ingredients often unfamiliar to foreign markets—have set these gins apart from their Western counterparts.
“It’s truly incredible what Japan is bringing to the spirits world,” says Fanny Chu, head bartender at Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Donna. “They’re using fewer botanicals than most Western gins—you can actually taste the spirit, as well as the [flavoring] components.”
Gin production in Japan isn’t new; Suntory launched a London Dry style under the label Hermes Dry Gin in 1936, but, for reasons relating to historical bans on imports, the spirit wasn’t widely consumed there until recently. In 2016, two Brits based in Japan (a former Whisky Magazine publisher and an importer and distributor, respectively) established The Kyoto Distillery and released the country’s first craft gin, Ki No Bi, a brand that falls well outside the typical profile of traditional London dry-style gin. The product’s immediate success led Beam Suntory to launch Roku, a gin also built around Japanese botanicals, in 2017. Since then, other noteworthy brands—many of them new to the U.S. market—have made their way onto the spirit lists at a growing number of American bars, including Llama San in New York, Watertrade in Austin and Kumiko in Chicago, to name just a few.
While most Japanese gins are made from rice-, barley- or corn-based neutral grain spirit derived from shochu or whisky production, a new wave of distillers is utilizing everything from sweet potato (imo, used to make shochu) to sugarcane. “Most Japanese alcohol, other than shochu and sake, isn’t governed by very many laws, including what the base spirit must be,” says Christopher Gomez, beverage director at Shibumi, a Michelin-starred kappo ryori (fine dining) Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles, of the sheer variety within the expanding category.
Indigenous botanicals are carefully selected and hand-harvested to form the foundation of a Japanese gin, which some distilleries—notably, Ki No Bi and Roku—construct around six flavor categories: Base, Citrus, Tea, Herbal, Spice and Floral. At many facilities, botanicals are macerated and distilled separately before blending, to retain their inherent flavors and distinct aromas. “The distilleries use blending in a way that’s undeniably Japanese,” says Caer Maiko Ferguson, co-founder of Austin’s Daijoubu, a nomadic Asian cocktail pop-up. “In their whisky houses, the master blender is often the most respected position, in contrast with the Western distiller, so the way companies like Ki No Bi, Roku and Nikka Coffey are making gin makes sense when you take that into consideration.”
While it’s difficult to assign a signature flavor profile to Japanese craft gins, they uniformly exhibit characteristics that distinguish them from their Western counterparts. Whether floral and delicate, malty and smooth, or vibrant and citrus-forward, juniper typically takes a back seat, setting them apart from Western styles. “What I love about these Japanese gins is how distinctive each one is,” says Natasha Bermudez, head bartender at Manhattan’s Llama San. “If I’m going to carry a bunch of gins, I don’t want repetition.”
Where it’s from: Hokkaido
What’s in it: Yuzu, kabosu (a type of sour citrus), amanatsu (a sweet citrus fruit), shequasar (a very sour citrus), angelica, coriander, lemon and orange peel
ABV: 47 percent
Nikka—founded by Japanese chemist Masataka Taketsuru in the late 1930s—is one of the country’s most esteemed whisky distilleries, but it has also been producing gin and vodka for over 60 years, from barley- and corn-based neutral grain spirit. The first Japanese gin widely available in the U.S., Nikka Coffey gin is lush and citrusy, with a tingling bite of sanshō on the finish. “It’s very bright and bold, and probably the most similar to a Western gin,” says Maiko Ferguson, who infuses it with jasmine green tea for a “super Asian riff” on the Adios Motherfucker that also includes Batavia arrack, St. George shochu, Roku gin, Asian citrus and Bols blue Curaçao.
Where it’s from: Kyoto
What’s in it: Yellow yuzu, hinoki, bamboo, red shiso, gyokuro, sanshō
ABV: 45.7 percent
The Kyoto Distillery’s flagship gin is distilled from rice and mineral-rich Fushimi water, the latter sourced from a local spring that’s a key ingredient in the region’s celebrated sake production. Chu uses this “clean, distinctive, hinoki-forward spirit” in Martinis, Negronis, Gimlets and tropical cocktails, but her favorite way to enjoy it is oyuwari, combined with equal parts hot water (the way shochu is often consumed). The sanshō lends a piquant quality that Chu also highlights in her take on the Alaska, where yellow Chartreuse stands in place of vermouth, letting its delicate honeyed notes complement the citrusy, herbal qualities of the gin.
Where it’s from: Hokkaido
What’s in it: Gyokuro, sanshō, yuzu, green bitter-orange peel, coriander, licorice, angelica root
ABV: 43 percent
Asahikawa Distillery’s release is delicate and yuzu-forward, with herbal underpinnings and a silky finish, made from Hokkaido juniper, neutral cane spirit and water from the Taisetsu Mountains. It’s a favorite of Andy May, a bartender and freelance cocktail consultant in New York, who prefers drinking this spirit simply on the rocks or in Gimlets and traditional fizzes. Despite being one of Japan’s first craft gins, it’s not yet well-known stateside, with limited distribution in the Northeast. Even so, Etsu took home a Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2018.
Where it’s from: Osaka
What’s in it: Sakura flower, sakura leaf, sencha tea, gyokuro, sanshō, yuzu peel
ABV: 43 percent
“What Suntory is doing is very special,” says Bermudez, of Llama San. “I love how romantic and versatile it is, combining floral and earthy characteristics.” She favors Roku for classic gin cocktails, including dirty Martinis. “The sanshō has a bite that cuts through the brine.” At Austin’s Watertrade, an omakase-style bar specializing in Japanese spirits, bartender Ricky Cobia reaches for Roku regularly. His current favorite creation is the Fankina Kaki, or “funky oyster,” in which he combines the gin with oyster and shiso caramel, lemon, velvet falernum, basil eau de vie, egg white, matcha and yuzu oil, served up.
Where it’s from: Miyazaki
What’s in it: Yuzu, hyuganatsu (a sweet-sour citrus), sanshō
ABV: 47 percent
This renowned shochu distillery uses its Kameshizuku imo (sweet potato) spirit as the base for a bold gin with a peppery finish. “It’s well-balanced, and more of a twist on a London dry style,” says Gomez, who discovered the spirit on a recent trip to Japan and will be featuring it at Shibumi. “The sweet potato gives it extra body and sweetness, which is moderated by the sour, bitter notes from the hyuganatsu,” a cross between yuzu and pomelo. While not available stateside until early spring, Gomez enjoys it with tonic or in a Fitzgerald or Army & Navy cocktail.