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The blossoming trend of Japanese gin

In Japan, the shoots of a craft gin movement have grown into a force to be reckoned with. But, asks Melita Kiely, what actually makes a gin ‘Japanese’?

Japanese gin is evidently growing in popularity. But what makes a gin ‘Japanese’?

A love story has been blossoming in the world of food and drink, and the protagonist is Japan. In recent years, consumers from the UK, US, Europe and Australia have become increasingly infatuated with Japanese culture – and now it seems gin has been hit by Cupid’s arrow from the land of the rising sun. Gin’s ascent to the top of the white spirits category has been phenomenal to witness over the past few years, and a breakaway sub-category appears to be forming – and flourishing – as Japanese gin soars in consumers’ affection, both in the country and abroad.

Trailblazing the way for other producers to follow was UK-based The Cambridge Distillery, which has carved a revered reputation throughout the industry for its innovative, experimental approach to spirits. In March 2014, the distillery created the “world’s first” umami Japanese gin, made using Japanese botanicals including yuzu peel, shiso leaf, sansho pepper and sesame seeds. But why did the company fixate on Japan?

“We were working with Japanese flavour profiles and I became absolutely obsessed with the botanical range Japan had to offer,” explains Will Lowe, co-founder and master distiller at The Cambridge Distillery. “I was completely bemused that nobody had made anything with it from a distillery point of view. The rise of consumers’ fascination with all things Japanese is one of those things where people just seem to have clicked with a demographic because of popular culture; we see the same patterns in food, fashion, music, art – it’s not just spirits.”

It has since become apparent that Lowe wasn’t the only one thinking in that way, as many more Japanese or Japanese-inspired expressions have recently come to market. Take, for example, the founding of The Kyoto Distillery in Japan and the launch last October of the company’s first gin: Ki No Bi. Then in May, less than year a since its inaugural launch, the distillery released two limited edition bottlings: Ki No Tea, made in partnership with tea blender Horii Shichimen, and Ki No Bi Navy Strength. “Three years ago, lots of people started thinking similar things, and for a long time worked in complete isolation,” says David Croll, co-founder of The Kyoto Distillery. “But there’s since been a lot of movement inspired by the gin revolution.”

Hinoki is one of the Japanese botanicals used to create Ki No Bi gin

Even the big players are keen to dabble in this new trend. One such firm is Beam Suntory, which unveiled premium Japanese gin Roku in May. Created at the firm’s Osaka-based distillery, Roku is made with six Japanese botanicals: cherry blossom, cherry leaves, green tea (sencha), refined green tea (gyokuro), Japanese pepper and yuzu, alongside eight more traditional gin botanicals. “Global appreciation for Japanese culture and craftsmanship is on the rise,” explains Rebecca Messina, chief marketing officer at Beam Suntory. “We’ve seen this in the continued increase in demand for our Japanese whisky portfolio, and we also see a broader appetite for other well crafted premium Japanese products.”

Not long after Roku’s launch, Nikka unveiled its own Japanese gin, Nikka Coffey Gin, but insists its creation was not a knee-jerk reaction to what is being dubbed the ‘Japanese gin boom’. “We started this project three years ago,” says Emiko Kaji, international business development manager at Nikka. “We didn’t expect to see such a phenomenon when we started.”

In Japan itself, gin has never been the spirit of choice – particularly in the off-trade. Croll attributes this partly to the Japanese culture of living in smaller houses, meaning consumers are more selective over what spirits they keep at home because of storage constraints. Meanwhile, in the on-trade, gin has “always been there”, according to Croll, but the spirit has been more of a “workhorse” ingredient for bartenders as others take precedence – always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

Two styles emerge

What’s clear though is that there are two different styles of Japanese gin emerging – one created in the country, the other crafted abroad. But with consumers increasingly scrutinising brands over production methods and provenance, and in an industry built on values of authenticity and quality, will the launch of further Japanese gins confuse patrons? Are legislative boundaries needed to forestall perplexity between ‘Japanese’ gins and ‘Japanese-inspired’ gins? Opinions are divided.

“We made a real point of being transparent about provenance when bottling Japanese Gin, and making it as simple as it could be,” insists Lowe. “Yes, it’s called Japanese Gin, but we made it very clear that it’s Japanese flavours distilled in England. Nobody thinks our Anty Gin is made by ants. But for Japan, we thought consumers might mistake provenance if English isn’t their first language. So we called it ‘Japanese Style Gin’ for export market labels. It’s a representation of flavour rather than provenance.”

Beam Suntory’s made its Japanese gin Roku available globally in July

However, for Croll, there’s only one way a gin can be labelled ‘Japanese’. “Japanese gin can only be made in Japan,” he insists. “A lot of UK gins use ingredients from Africa, but aren’t called ‘African gin’. One thing we have been particular about is provenance. It’s very easy to say: ‘We use sansho,’ but it needs to mean something. In Kyoto, we talk to the farmers, pick and peel the ingredients ourselves. As we have seen with non-Japanese gins, there are well thought out producers and some that are slightly more opportunistic, perhaps.”

Nikka is less concerned by semantics. “We don’t want to be boxed into the ‘Japanese gin’ category,” says Kaji. “But saying ‘Japanese gin boom’ is easy for consumers to understand; it’s catchy. There’s no definition of craft gin itself, and there’s no definition of Japanese gin. We don’t see Nikka Coffey Gin as ‘Japanese gin’; it’s just Nikka gin.’

But with larger firms such as Nikka and Beam Suntory finding their feet as Japanese gin producers, will independent distillers keep their footholds in such a competitive category? “It’s actually since the big producers have launched their products that our sales have gone up, while media attention has been incredible and is bringing more people to the category,” enthuses Croll, who says that as long as the quality is high there is still room for more Japanese gins to come to market. “If you have a good product with a real story and sense of provenance, you’ve nothing to worry about – you’ll be here for a long time.”

And for a nation that is just starting to fall for gin, surely an influx of expressions made with familiar flavours can only pave the way for other gin brands – Japanese-inspired or otherwise – to follow. As Craig Fell, director and co-owner of Japanese-inspired gin Kuro, says: “If gin gets good traction in Japan and becomes the drink of choice, the potential for growth is huge. Brands like ours that use ingredients that Japanese consumers know will help open up the market and create more demand.” If Fell’s forecasts are right, the love story between Japan and gin looks on course for a very happy ending.

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