Craft Gin Distilling is Finally Hitting Japan

A man's face is quite close to the camera in front of copper stills.
Head Distiller Alex Davies hopes to capture the provenance of Japan in Number One Drinks Company Japan's forthcoming gin. Photo courtesy of Number One Drinks Company.

As a seemingly limitless raft of new craft gin distilleries multiply across the world – opening up everywhere from Glasgow to Greenpoint – one spirit-loving nation remains notably absent on the gin map: Japan. While the U.K.-based Cambridge Distillery’s ‘Japanese Gin’ was the first in the world to combine juniper notes with traditional Japanese botanicals – the angel’s share of which has recently been marketed as ‘the world’s most exclusive gin’ (at $3,000 a bottle) – Japan has not itself had an artisanal gin distillery to call its own. Until now.

Last month, David Croll and Marcin Miller announced the founding of Number One Drinks Company Japan and their plans for The Kyoto Distillery, set to open in 2016. “There is no great history of craft gin production in Japan and we like to open new chapters,” says Miller. “Gin is a workhorse spirit for the wonderful cocktail bars Japan boasts,” agrees Croll, “but hasn’t yet reached the levels of innovation and sophistication seen overseas.” However, Croll adds, he senses gin’s place in Japanese spirits culture is starting to change: “the highball (a drink not dissimilar in style to a Gin & Tonic) is now mainstream, and the artisanal, craft movement is now becoming much more deeply ingrained, as recent trends in the beer and sake markets will testify.”

The team come from a strong background in the spirits industry, both in Japan and elsewhere. Miller worked as publisher on the launch of Whisky Magazine in the late ‘90s and met Croll – who has been based in the country for more than 20 years and has run his own craft drinks importing and distribution business since 1995 – when the magazine launched a Japanese language version. In 2005, they began exporting Hanyu and Karuizawa to Europe and beyond. Head Distiller Alex Davies is an alumnus of the renowned Heriot-Watt Brewing and Distilling course in Scotland, as well as Chase and Cotswold Distilleries in England, and his assistant, Yoichi Motoki, has spent time bartending in Tokyo and distilling whiskey in Scotland.

Though Kyoto, the so-called City of Ten Thousand Shrines, brings to mind dreamy images of classic Japan, the distillery is, in fact on the outer edge of the city – close to Fushimi, a traditional sake-producing area, from where dilution water will be sourced. Still, the advantage is that the location “gives us more accessibility than a beautiful, ancient wooden house in a picturesque but crowded, narrow lane…” says Miller.

The company is still in the very early stages, with the first of the stills not due to arrive until the new year. Production, subject to licensing, will begin soon after and a launch is planned for the Tokyo International Bar Show in May 2016. The product will focus on locally sourced Japanese botanicals that will lend a certain terroir, but, as the company awaits their license, says Croll, “flavor experimentation has been limited to work carried out overseas. We have, however, had some remarkable results distilling botanicals sourced in Kyoto, like green and yellow yuzu, other native-to-Japan citrus fruits, and various teas."

“Our aim is not just to use a generic type of fruit, but to work in cooperation with farmers in Kyoto Prefecture to source specific ingredients from declared locations, adding another layer of provenance to our gin.’”

Distribution, too, will initially be locally focused, upon having the bars, restaurants and shops of Kyoto first embrace the product. “We want to make something in which they can feel pride,” says Croll.

Still, the “million dollar question,” says Miller, is whether the industry will support yet another craft gin product. “I think if a gin is genuinely offering something new in terms of flavor and backstory or location,” he argues, “then the ever-increasingly sophisticated consumer may well be interested.” They do, he emphasizes, have a unique product specific to its location: “We’ll be making gin in the home of Japanese craft, using fruits and spices native to Kyoto.” Croll, for his part, hints that there is a lot more news to look forward to from The Kyoto Distillery: “We’ve only disclosed part of the story so far but are looking to create a gin which comfortably fits into, but is not limited by, traditional categories and labels.”

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