Japanese Gin is Your New Spirited Romance

If you’re having trouble finding whisky from Japan, try turning your attention to the unexpected botanical flavors of the next big Japanese spirit, gin.
Illustration by Tom Arena

Lately, to love Japanese whisky feels a bit like a recipe for heartbreak. You fall in love with a beautiful bottling, then, “Wham!” It disappears from shelves, never to be seen again.

Luckily, this makes it a great time to get in early on another import increasingly showing up on shelves: Japanese gin.

For those who wonder why it’s so hard to get Japanese whisky, it’s because demand outside the country for the spirit has risen so dramatically that supply has become scarce. In particular, age-statement Japanese whiskies are now an endangered species, replaced by quaffable blends suitable to mix into highballs.

But Japanese gin? A new romance may be afoot.

Gin Botanicals, Decoded

Like their whisky brethren, these gins have nuanced flavors. Japan’s botanicals seem familiar, yet unexpected. There’s yuzu instead of lemon, and numbing sansho pepper in place of black peppercorn. That’s in addition to local flowers, grassy teas and fruit peels that intrigue while keeping the palate slightly off-kilter. And unlike whiskey, gin requires no additional aging time–one key reason they are starting to flow right now.

While these gins have just started to make their way into the American marketplace, you can expect to see them gain momentum in 2018. Here are some suitors that may send your heart aflutter.

Japanese Gin illustration
Illustration by Tom Arena

Nikka Coffey Gin was the first out of the gate, as Nikka made the gins widely available in the fall of 2017, before the others could gain much of a foothold. Of the three Japanese gins profiled here, this was also deemed the favorite. It’s lightly sweet up front, before blazing with citrusy zing. That citrus includes yuzu, as well as amanatsu (similar to Meyer lemon), kabosu (think of an orange-lemon hybrid) and shequasar (likened to a Mandarin or Valencia orange). It seems ideal to mix into martinis, since the botanicals provide a head start on that lemon twist. Nikka has also debuted a new vodka line, as well.

Debuting in the U.S. in October 2018, Roku Gin, is produced by Japanese whisky giant Suntory. It has a soft, almost creamy feel on the palate, but also plenty of peppery snap from the very first sip that fades to a grassy finish (the botanicals include two types of green tea). Botanicals also include sakura (cherry blossom) and yuzu peel. The piquancy suggests it would work well in a gin & tonic, or its Japanese equivalent, the “sonic”, which includes both soda water and tonic along with the gin. Also new to the U.S. is Haku vodka, distilled from white Japanese rice.

The Kyoto Distillery Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin is made by one of Japan’s smaller producers, currently distributed by Tokiwa Imports and the most challenging (but not impossible) for U.S. consumers to obtain. This markedly delicate gin starts with a rice-based spirit that’s soft on the palate and opens with bracing juniper and fennel seed aromas. The palate offers pleasing hints of pink peppercorn and rosewater, and finishes with a gingery tingle and an herbaceous/floral note attributed to shiso and bamboo leaf.

As Japanese gins become more available in the U.S., expect to see these names more frequently on cocktail menus and shelves. That’s a good thing, because while I still feel wistful for Japanese whisky, I’m ready to fall in love again.

This article was updated on October 2, 2018, to reflect changes in the American market.

Published on December 2, 2017
Topics: Spirits Trends
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of several cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip. and NIGHTCAP: More than 40 Cocktails to Close Out Any Evening, which debuts in September 2018. Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net




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