The bold botanicals elevating Japanese gin

The distinctive flavours of Japanese gin are driving its popularity around the world. Anthony Gladman heads to Kyoto to hear more about the botanicals that give the country's premium gins a sense of place and selects five of the best to try

Words by Anthony Gladman

The House of Ki No Bi in the center of Kyoto
The House of Ki No Bi in the centre of Kyoto

Uji, a city to the south of Kyoto, is the birthplace of Japans tea culture. At its height, during the Ashikaga shogunate, it had seven tea plantations. Of these, only the Okunoyama plantation remains. Growers have cultivated tea here for 600 years, making it the oldest plantation in Japan.

At an age when most of us would hope to be retired, Chotaro Horii, the current owner, still tends to his plants and serves tea to visitors in his shop. Or, if theyre lucky, a nip of Ki No Bi gin. His premium green teas are responsible for some of its flavours, much to the delight of this sixth-generation grower.


The blossoming of Japanese gin

When the Kyoto Distillery opened in 2016 to make Ki No Bi gin, it was the first dedicated gin distillery in Japan. It was also one of the first to employ distinctly Japanese botanicals such as green tea, yuzu and shiso.

Some accounts claim Ki No Bi was the first Japanese gin but thats untrue. Japanese distillers sold gin long before this; Suntory launched its Hermes gin in 1936, for instance. There were even a few craft gins but these were limited to the odd one-off bottle here and there. Ki No Bi was, however, Japans first permanently available premium gin.

Tea plantation
A plantation that supplies tea to Komasa for its Hojicha gin

Where Ki No Bi led, others quickly followed. Beam Suntory released its Roku gin less than a year later and Asahi Groups Nikka Coffey Gin came just a couple of months behind that. Since then, dozens more distillers have joined the race, many of them shochu makers who have released a gin as a sideline.


What is different about Japanese gin?

Botanicals, mainly. The most common choice to signal ‘Japaneseness’ is yuzu. Almost any Japanese gin worth its salt will contain a dose of this lumpen and thick-skinned citrus that resembles both an orange and a lemon. Its flavour is at once familiar and faintly different, thanks to its perfumed floral edge.

Shiso (also known as Perilla) is widely used too for its soft and minty flavour. It is commonly found in all sorts of Japanese dishes, from sushi to salads and tempura to noodles. Also borrowed from Japan’s food culture, Sansho pepper, a tongue-tingling cousin to the Sichuan pepper, is often included for its heat and aromatic spice. You’ll see it used to great effect in Nikka Coffey Gin and in Kodachi Gin.

green tea botanicals
Green tea is a commonly used botanical in premium Japanese gin but here it has been roasted to reduce its bitterness

Despite falling sales of traditional loose-leaf preparations, green tea still occupies a special place in Japan’s culinary psyche, so it’s no surprise many Japanese gins — Komasa Gin Hojicha and Kozue Gin, for example — feature it. And some, like Benizakura’s 9148 Gin, use seaweed such as kombu to recreate the umami flavours beloved in Japanese cuisine.

For many distillers, the base spirits from which their gin is made is also a good opportunity to display local roots. 135º East Hyogo Dry Gin, for example, adds sake distillate to its neutral spirit. Adding distilled rice spirit is a common practice among sake brewers. In both sake and gin it brings a gently perfumed note, at once grassy and floral and mildly citric.

For the shochu distillers turning to gin, using their spirit as a base is an obvious choice. Its contribution to the gin is similar to that of sake distillate but adds a touch of delicately earthy and fruity character from the koji used in its fermentation.


What is the flavour of Ki No Bi gin and how does it stand out?

One difference lies in the water it uses for its gins, which comes from nearby Fushimi. This part of southern Kyoto is one of Japan’s premier sake producing regions, with over 20 breweries crowding into just 1.5 square kilometres. The area’s semi-hard water, which flows in underground aquifers fed by the Momoyama hills, is held to be of particularly high quality.

Kosuke Endoh, the senior distiller for Ki No Bi, appreciates its soft mineral flavour. ‘For diluting spirits it is common to use water from which minerals have been removed, but using water with appropriate minerals gives [the gin] a soft and rounded taste,’ he explains.

Almost any Japanese gin worth its salt will contain a dose of yuzu

The other major difference lies in how the Kyoto Distillery treats its botanicals. While other Japanese gins tend to stick with the London Dry method, where everything is distilled in one go, distillers for Ki No Bi split the gin’s 11 ingredients into six different groups — they call them elements — that are distilled separately and then blended.

House of Ki No Bi, Japanese Gin
The House of Ki No Bi, the home of the Kyoto Distillery gin palace

‘Botanicals differ in the way they are extracted during distillation,’ Endoh says. If you distill everything together you risk missing the point at which some are at their best. Distilling separately is designed to avoid this but also means that distillation can take longer. ‘Some botanicals have similar properties, so we have six elements instead of eleven distillates, for a bit of efficiency,’ Endoh says.

Once the elements have been blended, the finished batch of gin is moved into a large holding tank where it combines with previous batches. This is continually topped up with fresh batches as gin is drawn off for bottling, meaning it never fully empties. This approach, somewhat similar to the solera system used for aging sherry, keeps Ki No Bi consistent over time.


The DNA of Japanese gin

A few hours after my visit to the tea plantation in Uji, I find myself back in central Kyoto, drinking with Endoh some of the other Ki No Bi distillers. Bees Knees is a tiny, speakeasy style bar: dark and narrow, polished wood reflecting soft lamplight. It buzzes with the sound of chatter and hip-hop. It only seats 20 and is so popular that its hard to get in, even mid-week.


Looking around I see as many foreign faces as I do Japanese. This is a bar with an international feel but still anchored in Kyoto, not least by the drinks it serves. Mine is a dry Martini made with Ki No Tea, a version of the gin that features even more of Horii-sans green tea. It is bone dry, delicate and deeply herbal with an edge of almost smoky umami. It calls to mind the tiny cup of sencha, clear and vibrant, that I drank in his shop in Uji. It is sublime.

Horii-sans tea is the most expensive botanical used in Ki No Bi. It wouldnt be too much of a stretch to say it is essential to the gins character and replacing it would be impossible without fundamentally altering the gins DNA. Thankfully, its future looks secure. Horii-sans daughter has married and is expecting a child — a son, Im told — who is already the source of much pride and expectation.

Five of the best Japanese gins to try

135 East Hyogo Japanese gin

135º East Hyogo Dry Gin

This gin is smooth, bright and fresh, with some of its more delicate flavours preserved thanks to vacuum distillation. It features ume (a type of Japanese plum), yuzu, shiso, green tea and sancho pepper. This is all pepped up with a splash of sake distillate from the Akashi Sake Brewery.

£36, 42% abv, Waitrose

Roku Sakura gin

Roku Sakura Bloom Edition 

Launched at the beginning of 2024, this limited edition has the same botanical ingredients as regular Roku gin but with the proportions rejigged to bring the cherry blossom to the forefront. Its bright and floral with a saline edge and a piney juniper backbone.

£31, 43% abv, Sainsburys

Etsu Japanese gin

Etsu Gin

The main flavour notes here are of blossom, umami green tea and fresh citrus, with an undertone of sancho pepper. It’s smooth and creamy on the palate and makes an excellent G&T garnished with a wedge of grapefruit.

£41, 43% abv, Master of Malt

Komasa Gin

Komasa Gin Hojicha

If you like the idea of a green tea gin, here’s another for you with a slight difference: hojicha is a green tea that is roasted to remove its bitterness. It lends a smoky, vegetal and almost iodised richness to the tea and is built on a shochu base. Complex, uncompromising and delicious.

£27.50 (for 50cl), 45% abv, Master of Malt

Ki No Bi Japanese gin

Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin

Smooth, expressive and complex. This is good enough to enjoy neat over ice, though it will hold up well to mixing too. Juniper leads the aroma, along with citrus, herbaceous and floral notes. On the palate sancho, ginger and kinome lend perfumed spice notes. Green tea builds on the lingering finish. Fabulous.

£48, 45.7% abv, Whisky Exchange