Food & Drink | KANPAI CULTURE

The Kyoto Distillery: home of Japan's first artisanal gin

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

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.

Davies notes that though there may be “recipe tweaks” and limited-edition distillations in the future, the company’s artisanal approach to production will remain constant. Instead of relying on computerized control systems, he and Motoki will monitor the runs and make decisions based on taste and smell — blending science with artistry.

Craftsmanship is the cornerstone of the operation. Ki No Bi’s distinctive glass bottles are hand-blown by craftspeople in Osaka’s Sakai district. The screen-printed label — an elegant floral design displaying the gin’s name, which means “beauty of the seasons,” in Japanese characters and Roman letters — is a collaboration with Kira Karacho, Kyoto’s oldest maker of karakami (paper printed with woodblock patterns), a craft that dates back to the early 17th century.

The Kyoto Distillery is the brainchild of whisky exporters David Croll and Marcin Miller, who founded Number One Drinks Co. Japan. Originally from the U.K., Croll has lived in Japan for more than 20 years, working in finance before transitioning into the drinks business. He fell in love with Kyoto when he visited Japan for the first time in 1985 as a trainee with Nomura Securities. After returning to the U.K., the city loomed large in his imagination.

“Kyoto was always at the back — and front — of my mind,” he recalls. “It takes time and effort to uncover the city’s beauty because it’s more discreet.”

However, Croll’s journey back to Kyoto was a circuitous one. Five years after moving to Tokyo, he started importing casks of whisky into Japan from the Arran distillery in northern Scotland, gradually adding other small distilleries to his portfolio. In 2006, he teamed up with Miller to establish Number One Drinks Co. and started exporting Japanese whiskies from cult distilleries such as Chichibu, Hanyu and Karuizawa. By 2014, with the stocks of Karuizawa nearly depleted, Croll and Miller decided to expand into production. The whisky market was already saturated, but the two saw an opportunity in producing a small-scale, boutique craft gin. After years of domination by large non-Japanese companies, the gin market is finally starting to attract the attention of local consumers. Croll and Miller wanted to create a spirit that would reflect Japanese culture and traditions. Kyoto seemed to be the ideal location.

The first thing you notice when you step into The Kyoto Distillery’s new facility — situated in a refurbished warehouse 20 minutes outside of the city center by car — are the two gleaming copper stills. The 450-liter swan-neck still is used to distill a neutral base spirit made from local rice; the smaller still holds 140 liters and is used for herbal distillations. Ki No Bi is classified as a dry gin, which means that the flavor comes from distilling the botanicals together with the base spirit. Ki No Bi’s recipe includes several herbs and spices, such as orris root (a medicinal herb), hinoki (cypress), various citrus fruits and kinome (Japanese pepper leaf). No ingredients are added other than water. Head distiller Davies groups the ingredients into different flavor categories to produce six separate distillations. After two days, the distillates are blended and mixed with water to lower the alcohol content to around 45 percent. This year, the company aims to produce 60,000 bottles.

In the glass, yuzu and juniper rise to the fore on the nose and the palate. Sanshō and kinome add tingly notes of spiciness, while the green tea floats in the background, rounding out the flavor of the gin with a hint of subtle umami. Although it works well in a martini, my favorite way of drinking Ki No Bi is on the rocks or mixed with a little water so as not to overpower the nuanced aromas. The distillery is currently working with local bartenders to develop new cocktail recipes for the spirit.

The Kyoto Distillery is the country’s first craft gin distillery, but Ki No Bi is not the first domestically produced gin. Last year, Mars Shinshu Distillery in Nagano Prefecture, the makers of Mars Whisky, distilled 900 bottles of Ko-on, a gin made from shōchū (Japan’s indigenous clear spirit) flavored with local ingredients such as ginger and daidai (bitter orange). Two other Japanese-accented gins exist but both are made in the U.K., by Diageo and The Cambridge Distillery. Earlier this month, Suntory, Japan’s largest whisky producer, announced that the company is considering getting into the gin game, too. Davies, however, remains confident: “Competition is healthy, so I’m not worried,” he says.

The gin scene in Japan is about to get much more exciting.

For more information about Ki No Bi, visit kyotodistillery.jp.