Craft gin is experiencing a boom right across Japan right now, with a new gin hitting the market nearly every single month.
Distilleries are popping up overnight, offering their own newest and latest representation of “Japan” in a bottle of junipery goodness, with many new and unheard of botanicals being sourced and distillation methods being adopted to stay on top of this recent wave.
Whilst some companies have experimented with the base liquor (warning: gins made from shochu, will inevitably end up tasting like shochu), and others with the botanicals (the most interesting I’ve heard to date utilised goya (bitter melon)!); in a way akin to the way Australian gins often make use of similar locally sourced botanicals (lemon myrtle, wattleseed, finger limes, river mint – you see where I’m going!), the same steady culprits tend to pop up in many Japanese gins as well.
The regular crew consists generally of juniper with some combination of Japanese citrus (yuzu, kumquat, shikuwaza, amanatsu, etc.), some kind of local tea (gyokuro tea, green tea, matcha, genmai tea and the likes), some kind of spice (specifically Japanese sansho pepper) and some kind of floral/herbal component (ginger, sakura flowers, perilla are all common).
In the newly accessible Japanese craft gin market, Kinobi has established itself as a staple gin representing the delicate Japanese palate and containing simple, yet well thought out Japanese botanicals, so it seemed like the obvious choice for my first Japanese craft gin review.
About the Distillery
Kinobi’s distillery is located in the old capital of Kyoto – a fact they pride themselves on. The name itself roughly translates to “the beauty of the seasons”, a testament to the botanicals harvested for use in its distillation. Whilst they have only been in operation since 2016, they are already a huge contender in the local craft gin market and have a big brand image (probably second only to Suntory’s Roku Gin).
However, unlike Suntory who produce anything from whisky and beer to shochu and umeshu, and the many other new distilleries which have sprung up from old shochu/ sake makers, Kinobi’s “The Kyoto Distillery” is Japan’s first distillery dedicated to the production of gin and nothing else.
As mentioned earlier, Kinobi puts pride in announcing that this is a “Kyoto Gin”, emphasising their use of local Kyoto gyokuro green tea and yuzu as botanicals and making use of famously purified water from the Fushimi district of Kyoto. To date their product portfolio is as follows:
- Ki no bi Kyoto Dry Gin – the original product 45% ABV. The main subject of this article.
- Ki no Tea a limited edition Gyokuro and Tencha tea flavoured dry gin, 45% ABV
- Ki no bi ‘Sei’ Navy Strength Gin limited edition gin 54% ABV. Please see Part 2.
- Sen no Suzu – a slightly more upper market dry gin 47% ABV.
Without further ado let’s get into the main point of the article and talk about our gin at hand!
- Kinobi Kyoto Dry Gin is a distinctive expression of the Kyoto, and of the total 11 botanicals used in its distillation, 7 of its botanicals are sourced from within Kyoto, 1 from neighbouring Seto, whilst the remaining 3 are imported.
- The breakdown of botanicals by area sourced are as follows:
- Kyoto: green tea leaves (gyokuro), yuzu, sansho pepper, hinoki cypress, ginger, bamboo leaves, red perilla
- Seto: lemon peel
- Imported: juniper berries, orris, pepper tree buds
- Starts off with a strong yuzu fragrance, which leads off to delicately sweet gyokuro tea notes, followed up with a sharp spicy finish (I imagine thanks to the sansho and pepper tree buds).
Quite what I expected from the nose, with heavy yuzu notes and juniper making up the backbone of this gin. Still had elements of sweetness, thanks to the green tea. The ginger and sansho helped to give it a slightly spicy but not overly invasive kick.
Great sipping gin, not overly heavy or overly light but very pleasant overall. Definitely tasted very “Japanese” which I mean in the best way possible; juniper still reigned supreme but with subtle notes of the handpicked botanicals making their presence known to the taste buds. 4.5/5.
Gin & Tonic
I admit I was slightly skeptical of how this one would come out in a gin and tonic, as I felt the flavours would be too subtle to really shine in a G&T. To make up for this presumption I poured quite heavy, at a ratio of approximately 2:3, gin to tonic water and garnished simply with a lemon peel.
I was pleasantly surprised with the results. Again yuzu and juniper were the most predominant flavours in the mix, however the higher proportions brought out the delicate flavours of the other botanicals. The hinoki brought a lovely slightly woody flavour to it, which was just perfect with the juniper; the gyokuro green tea again brought a slight sweetness and a beautiful fragrance when mixed with the tonic water.
I’m not entirely sure which botanical was responsible, however there was a slight umami flavour which lingered well after the first sip (possibly the bamboo leaves?).
Definitely not up there with my all-time favourite G&Ts, but solid and tasty by any standards. For this time of year (currently early summer in Japan), it was very refreshing and the yuzu flavours were especially welcoming on the tastebuds.
Four 4 stars / 5.
I looked most forward to trying this one in a martini because if there was one cocktail that would bring out more of those lovely botanicals, I felt the martini was it. I pulled out an extra special vermouth for this one in my excitement.
I mixed at a ratio of approximately 5:1 (75ml:15ml) with Riserva Carlo Alberto Extra Dry vermouth, an Italian quite sharp, yet extremely light vermouth flavoured with 21 herbs and spices (for those first hearing of this, check them out!) and garnished again with a lemon peel. I’m usually an olive fiend when it comes to martinis but I resisted the urge and went with the lemon, feeling it was sure to give a less adulterated, more pure flavour.
And boy did this one shine in a Martini.
Overall it was smooth and incredibly delicate experience. As expected it was more citrus forward, with the yuzu and lemon flavours being used to good effect but still with enough juniper to maintain dominance in a Martini.
Those slightly woody undertones were once again present, whilst the whole thing had a beautiful tea fragrance. If I could give any criticism I suppose it could be said that it was slightly on the lighter side; possibly stirring this even drier might be the key to making it pack even more of a punch.
Four 4.5 stars / 5.
The Take Home
Overall this was a great gin; given the hype surrounding Kinobi I initially wanted to dislike it, but it is undeniably a tasty drop. Unlike many of the new Japanese gins hitting the market it was still very much a London dry gin done in a Japanese fashion – still enough juniper flavours but with subtle undertones of the well picked Japanese botanicals making their presence felt.
With that said the price tag for Kinobi here and overseas is not cheap by any standards (approx. \5000 in Japan and more than double that overseas), putting it at around the same price as Monkey 47, Gin Mare, Koval etc., so I had to mark based on a similar criterion.
Rating Overall 4/5 Stars
- Official Website here (Japanese)
- Australian Supplier
- via NicksFollow The Kyoto Distiller on Instagram
- @thekyotodistilleryCheck out The Kyoto Distillery Head Distiller, Alex Davies, Instagram page @thegingerdistiller
- ABV: 45%
- Botanicals: Juniper, Gyokuro green tea, Yuzu, Ginger, Red Perilla (shiso), Bamboo Grass, Sansho pepper, Hinoki cypress, Orris, Lemon, Pepper tree buds
Disclaimer: this review is an unbiased and unsolicited review of a sample from the writer’s personal collection. All opinions expressed regarding the product are my own.
Coming up in Part 2, we take a look at Kinobi ‘Sei’ Navy Strength Gin as well as an original cocktail recipe using the gin reviewed this time around.
About our Guest Contributor
Simon Darveniza from Shepparton, Victoria, has worked in the hospitality industry for a combined total of 7 years; working as anything from a waiter, to a kitchen hand; from a craft beer specialist, to a cocktail menu consultant. His hospitality journey has seen him travel around the hospitality industry of Melbourne to Taipei to Japan, where he has settled for the last two years.
Whilst working as a network engineer during the day, Simon currently co-runs a small rum bar in Kawasaki city (just outside of metropolitan Tokyo) by the name of “Carib”, primarily serving rum, beer and handmade beef jerky, as well as holding gin take over events every Saturday night.
He enjoys exploring new gins, rums and craft beers, as well as settling down in cosy cafes and reading classical literature (the former and the latter generally not in succession!).
His articles will mainly be focused around gin and the bar industry in Japan/Asia.