Getting To Know Japanese Gin
These regional Japanese gins use local citrus and botanicals to add flavor and elegance.
Whisky is likely the first association people have when it comes to Japanese spirits. However, as people are becoming increasingly interested in exports from the country, distillers are rising to the occasion by introducing different categories to their lineups that appeal to palates from around the world. In recent years, Japanese gin has edged onto the scene, both from well-known producers and more under-the-radar distilleries. If you’ve yet to try Japanese gin but don’t know where to start, here are five bottlings to try.
Roku Craft Gin (43% ABV, $30)
Suntory is known for its highly sought-after whiskies, but the brand’s Roku Craft Gin also deserves your attention. The word Roku means “six,” which represents the six Japanese ingredients (including sencha tea and sakura flower) that go into each batch of this smooth spirit. Like Kyoto Distillery, Suntory distills their botanicals separately according to category in one of four distinct types of pot stills. It’s then filtered through bamboo charcoal to give it a smooth, lightly sweet flavor. While Roku plays nicely in most gin-based cocktails, we prefer to let its flavor shine in a simple Gin and Tonic. The gin won a gold medal in the 2019 NY International Spirits Competition.
KI NO BI Kyoto Dry Gin (47.5% ABV, $74)
As the first Japanese gin made in Kyoto, KI NO BI has made a big impression in the category. Like the name suggests, this gin stays true to the dry style but uses Japanese ingredients—think yellow yuzu, bamboo and green sansho peppercorn—to give it a unique flavor. When distilling the botanicals, Kyoto Distillery separates them into six categories (base, citrus, tea, herbal, spice and floral), distills each category individually, then blends them together to create KI NO BI Dry Gin. Warm with a slight gingery spice on the finish, this gin is delicious a classic Clover Club and other sour and daisy cocktails.
Masahiro Okinawa Gin Recipe No 1 (47% ABV, $58)
Masahiro distillery, which is located on Japan’s southwest tropical island Okinawa, has been producing spirits since 1883. They are experts in awamori, which is a spirit that’s distilled from Thai long grain indica rice. It’s also used as the base of their Okinawa Gin. Many of the botanicals in this gin are sourced from Okinawa, making it a much different spirit from the others on this list. Ingredients like roselle (part of the hibiscus family), guava leaves, long pepper and the bitter melon goya give Okinawa Gin distinctly tropical and floral notes that would be very at home in tiki cocktails like the Singapore Sling.
Nikka Coffey Gin (47% ABV, $47)
In 1963, Nikka Whisky founder Masataka Taketsuru imported Coffey stills from Scotland, and they are still used to produce spirits at the brand’s Miyagikyo distillery today. One of the liquids that comes off of those stills is Coffey Gin, a spirit that joined Nikka’s portfolio in 2017. Eleven botanicals go into it, including four types of Japanese citrus, coriander seeds and apples, which is a nod to Nikka’s heritage and history. It’s extra smooth on the palate with a hint of tingly sansho pepper on the finish. It also happens to make a gorgeous Martini.
Kozue Gin (47% ABV, $54
Kozue Gin is produced in Wakayama, a city located just southwest of Osaka, by a company that is best known for its sake and plum liqueur. But their foray into the gin category is a win. In addition to lemon, Mandarin orange peel and sansho pepper, Kozue is made with the Japanese pine needle komayaki. While the forest-like pine notes are quite prominent on the nose and palate, the citrus flavors shine through, making this a very drinkable and refreshing gin. Try it in a bright drink like a French 75 or Gimlet.