The setting is unmistakably Japanese: a mountainous backdrop and, out of view but menacingly close, an active volcano. And nestling amid barren rice paddies seeing out the winter, a distillery producing a spirit whose roots lie far from rural Kagoshima.
The administrative district on Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu is famed for shochua spirit, often made with sweet potatoes or barley, that has sustained family-run businesses here for centuries.
But for the past five years staff at the Komasa Jozo distillery have turned their shochu-making skills to producing gin, as a country better known for the rice-based spirit sake, and its award-winning whiskeys, acquires a taste for the juniper berry .
Komasa has been distilling shochu since 1883, but branched out into gin production in response to declining demand for the Japanese spirit.
“Gin is an international spirit, and shochu consumption is in decline, so that was a factor,” says Makoto Birou, deputy general manager at Komasa, which has been run by the same family for five generations.
“It’s distilled, like shochu, which makes it much easier to make. And it’s why Japanese craft gin is of such a high quality. We paid a lot of attention to British gin, but our intention wasn’t to try to copy it but learn how we could make something different.”
The use of shochu as the base spirit imparts a subtle Japanese quality to some of the dozens of craft gins to have flooded the domestic market in recent years. But it is the enthusiastic addition of locally sourced botanicals that have surprised, and enchanted, members of the international gin-drinking community – from Japanese citrus fruits to green tea and, in the case of the Sakurao distillery in Hiroshima, oyster shells.
Komasa’s three varieties are no exception: Sakurajima Komikan, named after the nearby volcano and made with the world’s smallest tangerine; Hojicha, which incorporates roasted locally grown tea leaves; and its most recent offering, Ichigo, the Japanese word for strawberry.
“We wanted to use local ingredients and come up with gins that reflect Japan, and Kagoshima in particular,” says Ryota Miyamae of Komasa’s research and development division.
Japan’s craft gin boom began in 2016 when the Kyoto distillery launched Ki No Bi, infused with green tea, bamboo and sansho pepper, among other ingredients, and made with water from a well that has served the area’s sake brewers for centuries.
“All that awareness among shochu makers means it’s easy for them to make gin,” says Stephen Lyman, co-host of the Japan Distilled podcast and co-author of The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks.
“They are already experts at fermentation and distilling.”
When customers at Miyako Takebe’s bar in Tokyo order a gin and tonic, they are no longer limited to familiar brands from the other side of the world. “It’s so well made,” she says of Ki No Bi, the first Japanese gin she stocked. “People tried it with tonic water and seemed to really enjoy it. Once they had acquired a taste for it, they started asking for other labels. I usually ask them if they’re in the mood for something zesty or floral.”
Now her inventory includes several Japanese gins – the observer sampled, among others, 9148 from the Benizakura distillery in Hokkaido, made with kelp, dried daikon radish and shiitake mushrooms.
While old-school gin drinkers tend to draw the line at anything too sweet or citrusy, Takebe says the new breed of enthusiasts is less fussy. “The craft gin boom is for people who didn’t really like the bitterness you get with conventional gin,” she says. “But they’re prepared to try other types that don’t have that prominent, medicinal juniper flavour.”
Japan’s connection with gin can be traced to the Edo period (1603-1868), when the spirit was brought over to the Dutch trading post on Dejima island in Nagasaki on Kyushu.
Its modern incarnation is influencing the way it’s imbibed, with many drinkers shunning the traditional tonic water and opting instead to water it down as mizuwari or mix it with hot water as oyuwari – a beloved style of many shochu drinkers.
Komasa sells its range all over Japan and exports a small quantity overseas. Overall sales in 2021 were double that of the previous year – a reflection of a wider trend that saw exports of Japanese gin reach more than 3,700 kiloliters in the first 10 months of last year, most of it to North America and Europe.
Lyman is wary of predictions that Japan’s gins will rival the country’s acclaimed whiskeys but believes some hold their own against established labels. “Japanese gin is reminiscent of the early days of craft beer,” he says. “There were microbreweries making all kinds of things, and not all were good. But those that are left make great craft beer. The same thing is happening with gin. I’ve had some unbalanced ones in Japan, but some of them are excellent.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism