Recent years have seen a new spirit taking Japan’s liquor industry by storm: craft gin. Long a European staple, this distilled spirit flavored with botanicals—a catch-all term for the herbs, fruits and spices used in gin production—is becoming Japan’s latest liquor star.
One reason is the freedom it offers for distillers to put their own mark on the finished product. By definition, gin is a clear distilled alcohol flavored with juniper berries. Other botanicals are a matter of choice, allowing Japan’s gin distillers to mix and match local products to create uniquely regional and thoroughly Japanese versions.
Rising stars in the craft boom
The pioneer in Japan’s new gin craze is Kyoto Distillery. Its flagship Ki no Bi gin uses eleven different botanicals with a focus on Kyoto flavor, including high-end gyokuro tea, sansho Japanese pepper and locally grown yuzu. Its international team started distilling in 2016, and Ki no Bi quickly became Japan’s most globally recognized craft gin.
Masahiro Okinawa Gin from Japan’s subtropical southern islands is also making waves. This one uses Okinawa’s traditional rice-based spirit, awamori, as the base for truly local botanicals like goya bitter gourd, shiikwaasa citrus and guava leaves. Masahiro has a century of distillation expertise, and combined with Okinawan flavors that leads to a truly unique spirit.
Another traditional spirit, shochu, serves as the base for Komasa from shochu distiller Komasa Jozo. Komasa gin comes in three varieties: roasted green tea-based Komasa Hojicha, citrusy Komasa Komikan and strawberry focused Komasa Ichigo.
Other Japanese gins hitting international markets include Sakurao, from Hiroshima Prefecture’s Sakurao Whisky Distillery, and Wa no Bi from Kagoshima based whisky and shochu maker Honbo Shuzo.
Big names entering the market
The Japanese gin boom has not remained purely artisanal, with major drinks makers also joining in. Suntory has released Roku, a wildly popular “craft” gin with a mix of botanicals including sakura cherry blossoms and leaves, green tea, and yuzu.
Nikka Coffey Gin, which you might be surprised to hear contains no coffee at all. Rather, it is leveraging the whisky maker’s continuous Coffey stills, usually used to make grain whisky, to produce base spirit for a gin that features Japanese citrus varieties like amanatsu, kabosu and yuzu, as well as sansho and other Japanese flavors.
No end in sight
Craft gin is a very fast growing class now, not only because of the freedom mentioned above, but also because unlike whisky, Japan’s most globally famous spirit, distillers do not have to age their product before selling. New distilleries can create gin using existing equipment to both generate income and establish a reputation while waiting for their whisky to mature.
So every new whisky distillery has the means and incentive to put out a gin as well, and with over 30 new whisky licenses granted in Japan since January 2021, the future prospects for new Japanese craft gin are good. So, keep your eyes open and your glasses full as craft gins bring a taste of Japan to cocktails everywhere.