Japanese gin isn’t new, but it certainly is fresh. It’s only a dozen years or so shorter in history than Japanese whisky production. In fact, it’s been a remarkably well-kept secret, known mostly within trade circles and Japanese bartenders. Over the many times I’ve headed to Japan in the past, I’ve had a few Japanese gins and occasionally tried to buy a bottle or two. But most retailers, particularly in smaller towns, prefer not to sell to tourists. It’s not some bias but simply a lack of supply.
Gin has been around since the time of Shakespeare, but it wasn’t till the 17th century that its popularity exploded. Because it was cheap, was infused with botanicals and smelt like medicine, it was known as the poor man’s restorative. Had gout? Gin it up. Kidney problems? Get a gin or two, rid your stones with this brew. Obviously that didn’t bode well for England’s poor. But its origin is in the Netherlands, and since Japan and the Dutch maintained extensive trading, gin naturally flowed into Japan.
One Japanese word for ‘gin’ is ‘zeneifuru’, from the Dutch word ‘genever’ for the juniper botanical that is used in gin distillation.
The Gin-esis of Japanese Gin
Japanese sensibilities for aromatics thrive on the delicate, floral and umami. They also pride themselves on domestic production. So Suntory founder Shinjro Torii created his first Japanese gin, Hermes, in 1936. Incidentally, the Hermes Distillery is best known for producing incredible bitters and liquers. That includes what Canon owner Jamie Boudreau considers the best violette in the world. They also produced the only absinthe made in Japan up till the ’90s.
Hermes Gin has long ceased production, but the Suntory group has a new gin up its sleeve. Roku Gin is one of the first Japanese gins to appear on the international market. It’s named Roku (Japanese for ‘six’) because it uses six Japanese botanicals in addition to eight traditional ones used in gin distillation. Relating to the seasonal flavours you get in Japan, they include sakura flowers and leaves, sencha and Gyokuro tea, sansho pepper and yuzu peel.
Since these are seasonal flavours, the botanicals need to be distilled and stored separately. Kept in stainless steel pots, they are then blended to create the balance of flavours in Roku.
We will, we will Roku
The scents that Roku brings to the nose reminds us of a morning run through Yoyogi National Park in the spring. A heady whiff of sakura blossoms and the coming alive of nature as winter thaws. The light and citrus sweetness of yuzu adds a texture to the traditional botanicals. Drinking it straight or on the rocks, Roku is a smooth, gentle and complex gin and Aki from Gibson has cooked up a special cocktail that focuses on building up the flavours you encounter in Roku.
But the pleasant surprise comes at the end, as the mildly fruity and peppery sancho pepper adds an unexpected spiciness to Roku. That creates a sharp thrill when you use the gin in a classic G&T. Sancho has great appeal to the Asian palate, certainly ours, but that’s probably because we love the light numbing-heat of Sichuan pepper. (Sancho pepper is a lighter version of the same flag pepper family.
Sweet Gins are Made of These
Our conclusion: Roku is going to rock the traditional gin industry because everyone loves Japanese flavours and Roku balances them well with the standard gin botanicals. While boutique gins and small batches will certainly keep their audience, the typical gin drinker will find Roku’s offer a lot more attractive than others. Plus, since it’s got Suntory behind it, we’re sure there’s already plans for an aged gin. Now that will definitely be Roku steady.
PSA: Gin Jubilee 2017 is currently going on and culminating Dec 3. Several bars (including Gibson, ADRIFT by David Myers and Chihulu Lounge at Ritz Carlton) are taking part in Gin Jubilee. Find out more about where you can find Roku during the Jubilee and get the bartenders to cook up something special for you.