We know that Japan has started producing some superb gins recently, bringing they renewed attention to detail and mastery of craft to this spirit. But what does the locals think about this development?
Recently Japan based guest contributor Simon sat down with Miura-san, the moving force behind Japan’s first festival held in Japan, Gin Festival Tokyo.
The first part of this article gave my impressions of this year’s Tokyo World Gin Day carried out in June and this second part of the article will be dedicated to an exclusive interview with Takeaki Miura, the organizer of Gin Festival Tokyo, asking him his take on the craft gin movement in Japan and the growth of the industry locally.
I’ll give a brief introduction of who Miura-san is before jumping directly into the article. Miura-san has a diverse hospitality background stretching over approximately 20 years.
At the beginning of the café boom in Tokyo he was one of the producers of popular café Here We Are Marble after which his career launched, planning and building from scratch a number of café/restaurants all around Tokyo as a consultant. In 2006 he launched his first individual restaurant in Shibuya, Tokyo Family Restaurant, and in 2014 launched Good Meals Shop, a bar/restaurant boasting a lineup of over 400 domestic and international craft gins.
In total he runs 5 different bars/restaurants centered around Shibuya and since 2013 has run many gin seminars and workshops, the biggest of course being the Gin Festival Tokyo since 2018. Without further ado, enjoy the following interview I obtained from this fascinating yet humble man with a big vision for craft gin in Japan (obtained from excerpts of an interview translated from the original Japanese into English).
First please tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your industry background and how did you get into craft gin in the first place?
A: I started working in a small café/ restaurant here in Tokyo in the 90’s. At the beginning of my career I didn’t have any particular interest in the hospitality industry but loved music and it was this love of music that got me working in said café in the first place. In 1999 I was put in charge of opening a new café for the company I was working for at the time and I gained a lot of skills and invaluable experience from this opening.
The end of the twentieth century was also when Japanese espresso culture started booming and we rode on this new wave becoming quite a popular café. Compared to traditional Americano style coffee available in Japan, espresso and latte culture was relatively unknown of in Japan at the time and teaching customers about this was an enjoyable and challenging venture.
Fast forward to 2006 and I opened my first business in Tokyo which we named Tokyo Family Restaurant. The idea behind this place was connecting people through world food, however in the peak of the global craft culture, we also started selling craft beers from all over the world. I first got interested in craft gin in 2012 when I drank Xoriguer gin for the first time. I was astonished at how different it was from any London Dry I’d tried before and this definitely was the gin that started it all for me.
In 2014 I opened Good Meals Shop, wanting to have a shop where I could sell not only craft beers and coffee but also many craft gins. At the time of opening we only had about 30 gins but now hold over a hundred. Especially at this time beer drinkers only drank beer, coffee drinkers only drank coffee and gin drinkers only drank gin; I wanted to create a place where I could connect these three concepts in a meaningful way.
You were one of the major organisers for “Gin Festival Tokyo” for these two consecutive years, Japan’s first world gin day associated gin festival. What motivated you to organise such an unprecedented event? Please tell us about what Japan’s craft gin industry was like at this time.
A: Honesty speaking I wanted to open a year before in 2017 and had made many of the necessary preparations for such but many of the big players in Japan such as Suntory and Nikka were yet to launch products that would come to be Roku and Nikka Coffey Gin, so I felt 2017 was a little bit early.
At the time I wanted to create a festival not just celebrating craft gin but a festival celebrating gins roots so we came up with the name “Gin Festival Tokyo”. There were many considerations over whether to make it purely a “craft gin” event, but the very definition of craft gin is murky at best, and I also wanted to include some of the larger scale distilleries producing much larger batch sizes of equally if not greater quality gins.
My biggest motivation to create Gin Festival Tokyo was that I wanted to create an event that could connect as many people as possible, makers with consumers, importers, bartenders and more; hence our slogan for this event became “We are all connected by juniper”.
Our concept when opening Good Meals shop was connecting people and the world through juniper and this mission carried through to our first gin festival as well. The Japanese craft gin industry was small but growing rapidly at the time of our first event.
Kinobi was the distillery who really started it all here in Japan, but by that point Roku, Nikka Coffey, Sakurao, Mizuho and a bunch of other distilleries had already started hitting the market with many more following quickly at their heels so I thought it was the perfect timing to launch such an event.
Last years event was a huge success, with over 5000 people attending over 2 days. Tell us your takeaways from this years event. Did you see a big difference in participant size and age?
A: On a general note we saw the amount of participants doubling from 2018 to 2019. Whilst the previous year we saw more people in their 40’s and above, this year the demographics were definitely more spread out with people coming anywhere from ages 20 to 60, however our biggest demographic was the 30-40 age bracket.
Although I had expected that Japanese gins would sell the most this year I was surprised and happy that they sold roughly 50/50 to their foreign counterparts. I feel that many people came to try Japanese craft gins but ended up drinking many foreign produced gins throughout the course of the event.
This year we also sold an insane amount of bottles through our bottle shop which completely exceeded my expectations. In total we sold 1134 bottles over 2 days, with many gins completely selling out very early on.
Especially the special gin booth on the second floor showcasing certain gins in specially made cocktails sold very well, I take this to be due to the connections built between the consumer and the producer or even the consumer and the bartender making said drink.
Generally speaking compared with say whisky or shochu, gin is still quite a niche market in Japan but do you see a trend for greater interest in craft gin emerging?
A: I do see a greater trend for popularity of all western spirits here in Japan without just talking about gin. I believe this new gin boom is really opening up many regular Japanese who’ve had zero experience with non-Japanese spirits and pushing their boundaries.
We’ve also seen many Japanese distillers making new rums, new whiskies, new herbal liqueurs and absinthes and the sort. Generally speaking Japan traditionally only has sake made from fermented rice and shochu made from distilling rice, barley or sweet potato. Both of these products are relatively mellow in character and not at all dry like a London Dry Gin.
To give an example, a very common praise of good Japanese sake is that it “tastes like water”, which we would never say in praise of a dry gin. I do feel in this sense that the Japanese palette and Western palette are very different in this sense as many of the qualities of London Dry gins that are praiseworthy in the west are traditionally seen as blemishes or a hindrance in the sake and shochu world.
In this sense I don’t think it’s necessary for Japanese to create these kind of dry gins that are popular in the UK but I do feel that an understanding of what gin should be is still low here in Japan and only with an understanding of this can we as a country start creating excellent gin.
Companies like Kinobi, Roku and Sakurao (Editor – see list link below) are definitely producing gins that have this traditional London dry contour and dryness reminding us of gins roots however not all Japanese consumers have acquired the taste to appreciate this dryness yet. I look forward to seeing further developments in the Japanese gin industry for sure.
Related to the above question, how do you see Japanese consumers responding to craft gins? What do you believe they appreciate about them?
A: From my experience I feel that most Japanese consumers prefer strong “flavoured” gins. Gins that have strong characteristics with one flavour standing out tend to be more popular here; whether that’s yuzu, chamomile, honey, lavender etc. These tend to be a kind of “gateway” gin, pulling people into the gin world and capturing Japanese consumer’s attention.
Conversely for repeat customers I feel there is a tendency to return to a more balanced gin, one that can be drank glass after glass without tiring of the flavour.
In this regard, gins like Xoriguer, Sipsmith, No.3 tend to sell very well with my customers at Good Meals Shop regardless of whether this person is a seasoned gin drinker or new to the scene.
In the last few years we’ve seen many new Japanese craft gin producers hit the market. Compared with Japanese whisky makers do you believe there is more innovation in the local gin industry? Is there any maker in particular that we should be keeping our eyes on?
A: As I mentioned earlier I think the idea of what a gin should be is still very vague here in Japan and in that sense I think many Japanese distillers are making products very flexibly with little concern over comparing to a standard London dry as inspiration.
In this sense there probably is quite some innovation in the industry as there are no rules and no standard in place so distillers are simply making the gins that they think consumers will enjoy.
Japan is abound with so many excellent citrus fruits as well as seasonal herbs with so much variation from Hokkaido to Okinawa and I think that the correct utilization of these could result in such great gin being created.
Mind you, no matter how good the distilling technology used and no matter how good the materials used to make a gin doesn’t necessarily guarantee an excellent product made. That said, obviously in making a good gin the above are definitely necessary.
Regarding Japanese brands worth checking out I find Okinawan Mizuho distilleries Origin product very fascinating. I think their flavour profile is impossible to achieve without the Awamori (Okinawan distillate made from long grain indica rice) base, but they create a completely new product absolutely different from a London Dry Gin whilst respecting London Dry Gin culture.
Until now most new gins hitting the market are coming from already established sake or shochu breweries or distilleries so I look forward to more gins coming from completely new ventures not relying on these preexisting establishments.
Speaking of gin, what is your personal favourite gin? How do you normally take it?
A: It might be a strange expression but if I was to marry one gin it would have to be Xoriguer. It captivated me from my first taste almost 7 years ago and was really the gin that got me interested in craft gin in the first place.
Whenever I think of what gin I’d like to start of my night my hand seems to naturally reach for Xoriguer. Another of my favourites is definitely No.3; the elegant cardamom notes always set me in a good mood and I feel there is not a single drop of unnecessary items in the mix.
How I normally drink my gin? Usually as a gin and tonic. Without thinking too much about it I normally select some random seasonal fruit or herbs I received as a gift and allow the fruit or herbs to take on the Xoriguer flavour before adding ice and tonic.
Of course it doesn’t always work out as successfully as other times but is just one of my daily hobbies to test my musing thoughts.
Lastly, with this year’s Gin Festival just finished do you have any other projects in the coming months?
A: At present I have a few projects with completely different concepts who want to make use of the gin towers we utilized at Gin Fes. I hope to be able to attend events in more local parts of Japan from Hokkaido to Okinawa. It’s still early days and not sure how much I can disclose but we’re looking at launching a project of similar scale to Gin Festival but in Kansai region, specifically eyeing out Kyoto as a base for this.
Of course, Gin Festival has become a day celebrating how juniper connects individuals, but I don’t want to just limit this to this Kanto/Tokyo area. By running a similar scale event in Kansai I feel we could reach out and connect even more people from various industries and ways of life.
I’m also looking at running a Japanese gin event in London and using gin as a platform to introduce various Japanese alcohol producing methods as well as broader Japanese food and culture. Even though my English is very poor I feel in this 21st century there are so many ways to connect with other people and this has been and remains today one of my biggest goals.
For anyone further interested in Miura-san gin journey please view the following website: https://craftgin.jp/
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!)