More widely known for whisky and the local spirit shochu, Japan is becoming an established gin market as well. The global thirst for Japanese whisky over the past 20 years has paved the way for craft gin to bloom in the country, driving interest and demand for other Japanese spirits in whisky’s wake.
IWSR data shows that volume consumption of Japanese gin in Japan grew by approximately 3% (CAGR) from 2014 to 2019. However, the appetite for the spirit outside of Japan is particularly strong, with volumes of Japanese gin increasing by over 20% (CAGR) during the same period globally.
For Japanese craft producers, gin is an ideal counterpart to whisky’s slow maturation, allowing them to quickly launch products to market and tap into the global gin trend. “In 2021, over 20 new distilleries were granted production licenses by the government. Although many of these specified whisky production, they will likely make gin while they wait for the whisky to mature,” notes Piotr Poznanski, Research Director at IWSR. “Many existing shochu producers are switching their production to the trendier gin category as well, as an aging consumer base has led to declines in shochu volumes over the years,” he adds.
Although Japan is better known for its whisky in the world of spirits, the country’s long history with gin dates back to the Edo period (1603–1868). The first commercial launch of Japanese gin didn’t happen for another hundred years or more; in 1936, Suntory introduced Hermes Dry Gin, a London Dry style.
Despite this, gin wasn’t widely consumed in Japan until more recently, and the Japanese gin movement is a fairly new development. Jump-started by The Kyoto Distillery in 2016 with the launch of the first Japanese craft gin, Ki No Bi, the gin category is now seeing a lot more product innovation that fuses Japanese sensibilities and ingredients with gin’s juniper bite.
Distinctly Japanese Bases
There is a heavy shochu influence at play in many product launches, drawing on the long history of distilling rice, imo (sweet potato), and barley in Japan. Others take a page from whisky bases, using corn. And a new wave of distillers is digging deeper still into Japanese ingredients. With no specification about what base must be used to produce gin, producers are exploring distillations of traditional Japanese beverages such as sake or awamori (a native spirit unique to Okinawa, Japan).
One of the ways that these gins distinguish themselves is through the myriad of indigenous ingredients that impart a distinctly Japanese flavour profile to the finished spirits. Juniper often stays in the background, allowing the local botanicals to shine.
One gin that highlights the many varieties of native citrus in Japan is Nikka Coffey Gin. This Hokkaido produced citrus-forward spirit is infused with yuzu, kabosu (a sour citrus), amanatsu (a sweet citrus fruit), shequasar (a very sour citrus), angelica, coriander, lemon and orange peel.
Some brands are tapping into Japanese cultural heritage through botanicals. Suntory’s Roku Gin, made in Osaka, pays homage to the cherry blossom that the region is known for, with infusions of sakura flower and sakura leaf, alongside sencha green tea, gyokuro, sanshō, and yuzu peel. Another release mining a heritage vein is Ki No Tea, a collaboration between The Kyoto Distillery and Hori-Shichimeien, a Kyoto tea grower with roots that date back to 1879. The gin is infused with premium tea varieties, including Gyokuro and Tencha.
Other producers are exploring the umami character of Japanese cuisine. Examples include Sakurao Limited, which includes Hiroshima oysters, and Benizakura 9148, infused with Hidaka kelp, dried shiitake mushrooms, dried daikon, and horseradish.
The Japanese Approach to Blending
Taking a page from the meticulous blending that takes place in Japanese whisky production, many producers macerate and distil each botanical separately and then blend in order to retain tight control over the gin’s finished flavour profile. This approach to production and ingredients is detailed by Suntory in the notes for its Roku gin. Each of the gin’s 14 botanicals are distilled in the way that best coaxes its flavour, for example the delicate aroma of cherry blossom is achieved through vacuum distillation in stainless pot stills, while yuzu’s deep notes are captured by distillation in copper pot stills.
Rituals and Serves
While Japanese gins play well in traditional gin cocktails and long drinks, there are some distinct regional serves influencing the category. Some are eschewing tonic water or club soda in favour of mizuwari, a style of drinking spirits that combines two parts cold water with one part of spirits over ice. Another uniquely Japanese ritual is oyuwari, a serve typical for shochu, which combines equal parts hot water and spirits. And there is an increasing trend toward drinking these gins neat, giving imbibers an undiluted appreciation of the spirits’ native botanicals and terroir.
More examples and profiles of Japanese gins coming to market are covered in IWSR’s Radius Innovation Tracker. IWSR clients can login here.
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