World Gin Day, celebrated worldwide on the second Saturday of June every year, had been completely unheard of and the day passed uncelebrated in Japan up until just last year.
With a slow but steady interest in and increased domestic consumption of gin nationwide across Japan in recent years, last year marked the first year that any large-scale official event, to explore and give more exposure to the juniper-forward spirit, was celebrated.
Spearheaded by gin fanatic and local Tokyo business owner Takeaki Miura, 2019 marks the second year that Gin Festival Tokyo was launched, giving participants the chance to try hundreds of gins both locally and internationally and the opportunity to learn more about gin in its numerous expressions themselves.
This will be a two part article, the first part giving my impressions and experience of this years Gin Festival Tokyo 2019, with the second part of the article consisting of an interview with Gin Festival Tokyo organiser Takeaki Miura himself asking him about his thoughts on this year’s event and the growing Japanese craft gin industry in general.
June is without a doubt one of my least favourite months here in Japan. Here in Tokyo it is the interval month between spring and summer and almost without fail falls right in the middle of Japan’s rainy season. Some years are worse than others, but regardless it marks the start of Japan’s hot and muggy summers with the humidity seemingly rising up out of nowhere.
June had always been quite a gloomy, melancholy month for me; spent constantly indoors whilst watching in despair as my balcony herb garden gets decimated by the constant rains and the very moisture in the air itself.
Last year was probably the first Japanese June that I had looked forward to in a long time, with a lot of excitement and anticipation to attend Japan’s first major event celebrating craft gin. Especially as a bartender and part-time manager of a bar that specializes in craft gin, last year’s first Gin Festival Tokyo was an absolute delight to attend, especially to see how other Japanese bartenders were utilizing the spirit and how the local Japanese public was accepting craft gin – a spirit that up until recently was viewed as an old man’s drink and nothing else.
With last years happy memories still fresh, this year had me intrigued as to just how different this year’s event would be compared with the year come and gone and how the Japanese craft industry itself had progressed.
Without further ado, the remainder of this article will give my impressions and experience of this year’s Gin Festival Tokyo.
First things first, although they were using the exact same warehouse out in Tenouzu Isle, this year the venue space just felt bigger. Last year there was just one gin tower with approximately 50 different offerings from which participants could choose their gin of choice with the help of several specialist gin staff and bring it to a single central gin & tonic stand to be made with their tonic of choice for 500 yen (approx. AUD$6.5 at time of writing) a pop.
Although this had worked efficiently in the early hours of the event last year, towards the end of the event I vividly remember waiting in line for about 20 minutes just to have a drink made. Mind you, at 500 yen a drink who was I to complain.
This year, they had designated a second gin tower, essentially doubling the offerings of available gin and expanding on last year’s single G&T bar to 3 booths run and served by bartenders from each specific tonic producer. This year’s line up of tonic water saw Fentimans, Fever Tree and Australian tonic water company Capi sharing the limelight; each providing approximately 4-5 different tonic waters to make your favourite gin and tonic after consultation with their very knowledgeable and friendly staff.
Last year they had provided a garnish booth on the side of the G&T bar containing cardboard boxes full of different fresh herbs and botanicals (dill, rosemary, mint, edible flowers, thyme, fennel, you name it) for you to freely select and pair with your gin and tonic; sadly, this year we had to live without being spoilt with a selection of garnishes and had to be content with their still very impressive selection of craft gin and quality tonic waters.
Last year out on a docked platform on the harbour, you had been able to taste a variety of 10ml straight servings of Japanese craft gins, this year the idea had expanded to almost all the gins on offering. The sides of the main hall were filled shoulder-to-shoulder with each individual distributing company offering a huge variety of the gins they distribute at 100 yen for a 10ml tasting serve.
The only logistically challenging part of this process was that they only had a single booth from which they were selling these gin tasting tickets (couldn’t purchase directly from distributors with cash) and this line seemed to extend out the front door at any given time. Conversely the G&T booths accepted cash, so I found myself gravitating towards this area for most of the event.
A huge shift that I perceived going to the event this year was the visible expansion of local Japanese craft gins and how enthusiastically people were responding to these. Although last years event featured many local gins, even in the last 12 months it was obvious that more and more makers are building brands up from scratch and existing producers expanding their lines.
Especially with brands that have since dominated the market like Kinobi; in the last 12 months I believe they’ve come out with at least 3 (don’t quote me on this) new items: Kinobi Noh Gin, Kinobi Edition G and their Kinobi Sloe-Gin type Haskap Liqueur. Meanwhile Sakurao came out with a limited edition Sakurao Hamagou gin and Wabigin came out with their Juniper Strength.
Other brands seem to pop literally out of nowhere but in no time have already established themselves firmly into the market. Komasa in particular has been one of these brands coming out not only with their very simple but delicious original serve but also coming out with a Houji tea variety since April. Black Chai Gin from Brown Sugar 1st, Kano Mori, Hinata Gin, Kikka Gin and the Inland Sea Gin are also other examples of some of the new brands that have come in strong and established a name for themselves in just months since their first bottles hit the market.
Tokyo being a very metropolitan city, this year’s event, as with last years, had quite a mix of attendees from all across the globe. Many local Japanese gins have yet to make a big splash in the international market, yet I personally saw how popular these local Japanese craft gins were with the many non-Japanese attendants to this year’s event.
To diverge, conversely due to the relative high cost of locally produced gins to their international counterparts, I personally felt, not only from this year’s event but on a more general level, that Japanese craft gins are still very much a niche category and are still much less accessible than say a bottle of Plymouth at a quarter of the price. At events like these due to the flat rate of 500 yen being charged regardless of the gin, attendants’ decisions were much less likely to be influenced by whether or not they perceived the gin to be expensive or otherwise. But when looking at most of the local Japanese lining up at the bottle shop for this years event, I couldn’t help but notice that most purchases were for foreign and not local gin.
I imagine that this is one of the challenges the emerging Japanese craft gin market faces; as most of the attendees at events such as these are millennials and partially Generation X whose mean salaries would generally have them leaning towards cheaper imported brands rather than favouring their more expensive local counterparts.
My experience behind the bar in Kawasaki has been very much the same. These and more themes will be explored further in part two’s interview with Takeaki Miura, so for those of you with an interest in the market, stay tuned for the coming weeks!
All in all, I think I tasted about 9 different gins (Isle of Harris, Komasa, Komasa Houji-cha, Four Pillars Shiraz, Black Chai Gin, Gin Raw, Alchemist Gin, Kikka Gin and Napue if my memory serves me right) this year, plus a few too many 10ml size gin tastings.
This years event was as enjoyable if not even more enjoyable than last years event. Although the weather had been surprisingly sunny last year, true to temperamental June form, this year it was overcast and raining on and off all day but that did nothing to dim the excitement I could feel buzzing in this room full of gin enthusiasts. It is events like these that really bring together not only people with a love for gin but even just people with a love for fun and a love for life.
Now mid-way into July, I have another 11 months to look forward to 2020’s offerings!
Stay tuned for part two where I will ask Gin Festival Tokyo organiser Takeaki Miura about his thoughts on this year’s event and the growing Japanese craft gin industry in general.
More Japanese Gin insights
Check out this list of Japanese Gins, with links to their websites and our reviews.
About our Guest Contributor Simon
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, to 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!)