A drink with… David Croll, The Kyoto DistilleryBy Amy Hopkins
David Croll, co-founder of Japan’s The Kyoto Distillery, sheds some light on authenticity, innovative distilling and the unique proposition of local Japanese gin.
*This feature was first published in the January 2017 issue of The Spirits Business magazine
Why did you choose Kyoto, Japan, as the location of your new distillery?
Kyoto has always had a special place in my heart since I first visited in 1985. I’ve been looking for ways to spend more time here, so that was a starting point. The centuries of cultural achievement and artisanship provided Marcin [Miller, co-founder of The Kyoto Distillery] and me with inspiration when we began to consider what kind of product we wanted to make. An assessment of the possibilities revealed a wealth of locally-grown botanicals and, of course, the Fushimi water just down the road.
What makes The Kyoto Distillery and Ki No Bi gin unique propositions?
We have a fairly unusual production process; we distill in six distinct flavour categories, then blend and finally vat in a solera-type system, but we wouldn’t claim any of this is unique. What makes us stand apart is our commitment to authenticity, from ingredients sourcing through to the collaborations over bottle and label design. We’ve created something that is recognisably Japanese that clearly speaks of its provenance.
Why did you choose a rice-based spirit for Ki No Bi gin?
Aside from the obvious cultural connotations, we felt it provided the best results. It adds sweetness to the distillate and gives a lovely, creamy mouthfeel.
What were your challenges when setting up the distillery?
Marcin and I had a clear idea of what we wanted to do before we involved anybody else; I guess the challenge was putting
together a team capable of delivering our dream in a country where there is little or no tradition or experience of craft distilling. Mas Onishi [ex-Yamazaki distillery manager] is an old friend and has been invaluable. We were very lucky to secure the services of Alex Davies [former distiller at Cotswolds Distillery] early on, and our site engineer, LAFF International, has been huge in always finding solutions rather than just pointing out problems.
Has the distillery been embraced by Kyoto?
Very much so. Kyoto has a slightly insular reputation in Japan, not actually unlike places such as Edinburgh or Venice, which share similar distinguished histories, but we’ve found the business community here to be incredibly open and supportive. It’s a much smaller community than in Tokyo, where I’ve spent most of the past 20 years, and you soon get introduced on from one person to the next. At our Machiya [Japanese town house] launch event we were visited by the vice governor of Kyoto Prefecture, the team from Kyoto Brewing Company, most of the DJs from the local radio station, 14th generation Fushimi saké brewery owners and many local hotel, restaurant and bar owners.
Why choose to make just gin, and not branch out into other categories?
In Japanese the word ‘toriaezu’ means to do something for now, while you think about what you actually want to do – the phrase ‘toriaezu beer’ is often used at the start of a night out. Many people are making ‘toriaezu gin’ because it’s quick and helps fund things until they can produce whisky. That’s not what The Kyoto Distillery is about at all; we want to make the best possible gin we can. Ki No Bi isn’t a stepping stone.
How is work progressing at the distillery?
We were granted our distilling licence in August 2015, had the Shinto priest in to bless the distillery on 15 September, and have been in full production since then. We’re learning and making small tweaks to the production process as we go along.
Will Ki No Bi gin become an international brand or restricted to a few key markets?
It’s never going to become a mainstream brand as we don’t have the capacity. Japan will always be our most important market and we will look to work with a few like- minded importers and distributors in some of the more important territories. We’d rather do a good job in a dozen countries than spread ourselves too thinly.
Any other exciting plans for the distillery?
We’re planning to paint the outside of the building!