“Japanese gin”: for contemporary American bartenders, a more pure phrasal catnip couldn’t be engineered in a lab. It combines the world’s most mixable spirit with the most obsession-inspiring cocktail culture.
Even as back bars become crowded with gins from all over the world, Japanese gin—which calls on the country’s bounty of indigenous flora—feels automatically indispensable. We can hardly imagine a world without Japanese ice, Japanese bar tools, Japanese highballs, Japanese whisky—how have we lived this long without Japanese gin?
While gin has been made in Japan for at least 80 years (spirits giant Suntory bottled gin under the Hermes label as early as 1936), it’s never been seen as worthy of export. And it was “not traditionally consumed much domestically, being overshadowed by beer, whisky and shochu,” according to George Koutsakis, the creative director of online Japanese spirit retailer, Dekanta. But, following the surge in demand for gin worldwide, and a renewed interest in the spirit within Japan, that’s begun to change.
In 2016, a small boom of homegrown gins began in earnest when two British old hands in the Japanese whisky business opened The Kyoto Distillery, the country’s first craft gin distillery. Their flagship gin, Ki No Bi, was an instant success. The big brands took note.
Later in 2016, Beam Suntory announced the acquisition of a controlling interest in Sipsmith Gin, a boutique distiller in London; they launched their own gin, Roku, in Japan a year later. And this summer, just after Ki No Bi won a gold medal at the International Wine & Spirit Competition, the revered whisky distiller, Nikka, announced the launch of their Coffey Gin in the U.S. (Distillers outside the country have also begun to take a swing at “Japanese-style” gin, like the U.K.’s Cambridge Distillery, whose Japanese Gin employs shiso, yuzu and sesame, and Diageo, whose Jinzu is distilled with yuzu in Scotland.)
“Everybody is watching to see if they can do for gin what they did for whisky,” says Koutsakis.
The story and success of Japanese whisky is, of course, the stuff of industry legend. In 1918, Japanese chemist Masataka Taketsuru traveled to Scotland to learn the art of whisky-making. When he returned, he built the Yamazaki distillery for the company that would become Suntory, and later founded his own company, which would become Nikka, with a distillery in Yoichi. Numerous distilleries cropped up in the post-War years, but their whiskies were all but unknown outside Japan’s borders until 2001, when whisky from the Yoichi distillery took the top spot in the U.K.’s Whisky Magazine “Best of the Best” awards, beating out all entries from Scotland. Whiskies from Suntory and Nikka continued to gain prominence over the next decade, culminating in Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible naming a Yamazaki whisky the “World Whisky of the Year” in 2015. Sales during this period skyrocketed, with consumption in the U.S. increasing an astonishing 802 percent between 2011 and 2015.
There’s now a worldwide shortage of Japanese whisky, which has only helped boost Japan’s newfound interest in gin. Also, unlike whisky, gin doesn’t need to rest for years in barrel before it’s sold, which can really help a distiller’s bottom line. Just ask the dozens of American craft distillers who got into the business to make rye, but ended up fueling an explosion of regional gin styles by trying to make ends meet.
When deciding what flavors to include in their signature gin, these American distillers often look to local farms and woodlands for inspiration, like the Oregon grape and myrtle leaf in Vivacity Native gin from Corvallis, Oregon, or the white pine from Michigan’s Old Dam Gin. Likewise, the wilds of Japan offer a cornucopia of gin-friendly botanicals: aromatic trees like silver birch, spruce and cypress; citrus fruits like yuzu, shequasar and amanatsu; cherry blossoms, green tea, sansho pepper and more.
In our current renaissance of craft distilling, this has become gin’s unique superpower: its ability to capture the flavor of its birthplace in the bottle. Rather than trying to mimic a great or successful product, today’s gin distillers are often trying to communicate something about themselves and the place they’re from. Without the long tempering of years spent in barrel, that communication can be direct, unfiltered and electrifying.
So what, exactly, do Japanese gins taste like? While it’s tough to generalize about what, if anything, defines “Japanese-style” gin, all of the bottlings we tasted were remarkably well-made—exhibiting clean, structured flavors. They also all tend to lean heavily on citrus, giving them a distinct freshness and levity.
Currently, only the Nikka Coffey Gin and Ki No Bi are available in the U.S., though most of them can be ordered online through Dekanta. Also, a word of advice when tasting: We found that all of these gins tasted best neat, with a splash of water or on ice. In fact, even a splash of tonic tended to muddy some of the more delicate flavors, and we can’t imagine any of these working well with an olive. Mix at your own risk.
Six Japanese Gins to Try
Nikka Coffey Gin
The first of the big Japanese gins to be readily available in the U.S., the Nikka Coffey Gin sets a high standard. It’s bursting with sweet-tart citrus flavors that seem familiar that resist identification, like an old tune played on strange instruments. That’s the yuzu, but also the shikuwasa (“flat lemon”), amanatsu (a pomelo relative) and kabosu. We might credit the Sichuan pepper–like sansho with the long, dry, tingling finish.
- Price: $40
- ABV: 47 percent
Kuro London Dry Gin
Distilled in London, but supposedly inspired by a ski trip in Japan, Kuro takes its name (meaning “black”) from the addition of activated bamboo charcoal. Silver birch and spruce are added to a fairly typical London dry gin recipe; the result is subtle flavors of cream soda and sarsaparilla.
- Price: $47
- ABV: 43 percent
Mars Tsunuki Distillery WA BI GIN
Produced by Hombo Shinzu, makers of Mars Whisky, at Japan’s southernmost distillery, Wa Bi is built on a base of shochu, which gives it plenty of genever-like chewy malt and grain flavor. Cinnamon and bitter orange provide a strong, structured finish.
- Price: $69 | 700mL
- ABV: 45 percent
Suntory Roku Gin
Suntory has sold gin in Japan for 80 years, but Roku is their first foray into the international market. Roku means “six,”and refers to the six six Japanese botanicals in the blend, including the cherry blossoms and cherry leaves. The delicate dance of rose petal, peppercorn and juniper is persistent and meditative.
- Price: $80
- ABV: 47 percent
Kyoto Ki No Bi Dry Gin
This is the flagship product of the Kyoto Distillery, which also bottles cask-aged gins as well as Sen no Suzu, a gin specifically designed to mix with tonic. The base for their “Kyoto dry gin” is rice spirit, and the addition of hinoki (Japanese cypress) gives a woodsy nose backed up by notes of bitter orange and lemon meringue, plus bay leaf and cigar box. Pretty outstanding.
- Price: $65
- ABV: 45.7 percent
Okayama Craft Gin
Made by the century-old Miyashita Sake Brewing Company, Okayama Craft Gin is a unique and compelling spirit that bears only a passing resemblance to typical gin. Its flavors are deep, layered and strangely complimentary: old wool sweaters in a seaside cabin; overripe mango and papaya; #2 pine lumber; pink peppercorn; Captain Crunch. It has picked up a little golden-straw color from time spent in barrel, and it louches when you add water. Absolutely bizarre, and endearing.
- Price: $83 | 500mL
- ABV: 50 percent