It's a mild Kyoto evening, and a group of spirits enthusiasts are gathering at a handsomely restored machiya (traditional townhouse) to celebrate the launch of Ki No Bi, a boutique gin produced by The Kyoto Distillery, Japan's first craft gin specialist. Guests spill onto the machiya's moss-covered courtyard, carrying martinis and Moscow Mules mixed by top bartenders from Kyoto's Ritz-Carlton and Hyatt hotels. Inside the townhouse, placards depicting Ki No Bi's main botanicals hang on the walls: juniper, yuzu (Japanese citrus), green tea, ginger, bamboo and sanshō (Japanese pepper). In front of each sign are cups filled with the distillates of those ingredients, which guests are invited to sample. Bamboo and ginger are subtle; green tea displays a gentle insistence; yuzu and sanshō vibrate with a sparkling intensity. Besides the juniper, all are surprising aromas to find in gin.

"We had originally started experimenting with 50 to 60 ingredients, but that gave us a gin that tasted too classic," says The Kyoto Distillery's head distiller Alex Davies, a personable Sussex native with a shock of copper hair who had previously run England's Cotswalds Distillery. "We wanted ours to have a clearly defined Japanese character, so we narrowed it down to a handful of core flavors."

The Japanese ingredients are a major part of what makes Ki No Bi so special. The water added to adjust the alcohol level of the spirit comes from Kyoto's Fushimi district, a famous sake-making region known for its pure, soft water. Assistant distiller and former bartender Yoichi Motoki, a youthful 45-year-old, spent more than 12 months crisscrossing the country to source fresh ingredients for The Kyoto Distillery's first batch of gin. He and Davies even spent several days hand-peeling a year's supply of lemons from Hiroshima Prefecture and yuzu procured from an octogenarian farmer north of Kyoto.