Alex Davies Head Distiller
Interviews 5 November 2020

Life Lessons with Alex Davies of Japanese gin specialist The Kyoto Distillery

His ambition as a child was to be either an entomologist or a veterinarian - but gin lovers around the world should be thankful that Alex Davies discovered distilling
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Alex Davies, 31, is head distiller at the The Kyoto Distillery, Japan’s first dedicated gin distillery and the IWSC’s International Gin Producer of the year 2018.

Davies studied biochemistry at the University of Nottingham followed by a year at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, where he gradutated with an MSc in brewing and distilling.

An alumnus of Chase Distillery in Herefordshire as distiller, and the Cotswolds Distillery as head distiller, he has created and co-created a host of award-winning gins, including two that have been recognised as ‘World’s Best’ within their categories. Among his other awards are Best London Dry at the World Gin Awards for Cotswolds Dry Gin, Gold Outstanding for Cotswolds London Dry at IWSC 2017, an IWSC Trophy for Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin at IWSC 2018 and four medals at IWSC 2020.

Davies was persuaded to leave Cotswolds by Marcin Miller and David Croll, the founders of The Kyoto Distillery, when they were setting it up in 2016. “It had to be an amazing offer to lure me away from my last position,” he said at the time. “But I figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Kyoto is famed for its cuisine, has an abundance of fruit unique to the area and is the cradle of Japanese craft, from sake-brewing to kimono-weaving, woodblock printing, ceramics and lacquer work. I have stacks of ideas already and can’t wait to start distilling.”

Club Oenologique’s spirits consultant Joel Harrison recently called Davies “a Master Distiller in the making. At Kyoto he holds the title head distiller, despite a portfolio of award-winning gins from three much-lauded distilleries. Davies knows he is on a journey – one that is long and winding.”

 

 

 

What was your childhood ambition?

I always had a fascination with living things, both great and small. My first hobby was collecting insects and bringing them into the house, which must have delighted my parents. At this point I had decided to become an entomologist; as I grew up, this evolved into wanting to help animals by becoming a veterinarian. Then I found my love for distilling.

Insect collection
"My first hobby was collecting insects and bringing them into the house, which must have delighted my parents"

What exercise do you do? 

I’m in the gym every morning, focusing my mind and challenging myself. This time becomes extremely meditative. I’m currently doing about 30 minutes of HIIT [High Intensity Interval Training], HIRT [High Intensity Resistance Training], or Functional Training using an app called Centr. This is followed by an hour of weight training on a program I have developed and adjusted for myself over the years. I also do body weight circuits, heavy bag work and pilates on my ‘rest’ days.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

I am very routine-driven which means I have a tendency to tune out and go into auto-pilot. I’d like to be more present, attentive and sensitive to the world and the people around me.

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)? 

I’ve bought the odd bottle here and there (my Japanese whisky collection is looking quite nice). My wife Rachel is editor-in-chief of her own travel and lifestyle magazine, STORIED, so we bought a top-of-the-range MacBook Pro earlier this year – that’s the most expensive thing I can think of.

Inside The Kyoto Distillery
The Kyoto Distillery, where Davies has been garlanded with awards for his Ki No Bi gin
Inside The Kyoto Distillery

If you could do any other job what would it be, and why?

I would enjoy working as a perfumer. I’ve always been fascinated by smell and how a scent can affect people in so many ways, and transport them back in time through a connection to a specific memory.

What’s your favourite restaurant – anywhere?

One if by Land, Two if by Sea in New York City has a special place in my heart as it’s where I proposed. The staff were absolutely amazing, not to mention the lovely romantic atmosphere (it was Christmas, there was a live pianist etc) and phenomenal food and wine pairing. We also had a family brunch at Per Se that I don’t think I will ever forget; and a final favourite would be Tickets in Barcelona. Really loved the food, the setting, the hospitality and their house vermouth was amazing.

In Japan there’s a restaurant for every craving and every occasion: rather than sticking to one spot, though, what’s important to me is finding somewhere that suits my mood, where the staff are as welcoming as the food is delicious.

 

What luxury item (except wine or whisky) would you take with you to a desert island? 

Vermouth: it’s my summer tipple of choice and I am assuming the desert island would be hot. My top picks would be: Mancino, Lustau Rojo, Casa Mariol Negro, Gonzalas Byass La Copa Extra Seco and Yzaguirre 1884. And can I have a second? Music. My taste changes drastically based on my mood, time of day and activity, but for vermouth-sipping desert island vibes I could swing through a mix of Peggy Gou, Fela Kuti, Lijadu Sisters, Mo’ Horizons, Bosq, Moloko, Guts, Nightmares on Wax, Bonobo, Nickodemus, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Gentleman’s Dub Club, Lord Echo, The Dynamics – to name a few…

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to? 

I’ve always wanted to design a perfume. And, as I enjoy challenging myself as much physically as I do mentally, I’d like to progress from the 1,000lb (454kg) to the 1,200lb (544kg) club.

"It was Christmas, there was a piano, I proposed..." One if by Land, Two if by Sea, New York's most romantic restaurant

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you’d enact?

That feels like far too much responsibility for one person, but basically I’d try to save the planet by outlawing the use of fossil fuels and pushing forward in the renewable and clean energy sector.

Whom would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Sir David Attenborough would have some amazing stories to tell. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a gym idol of mine growing up and he has had a really varied and interesting career, so he’d make the list too. We can go back in time, right? So Anthony Bourdain, to chat food. Master Perfumer Anne Flipo, as we both share a love of Orris. And then finally, the actor Chris Hemsworth – he’s a fitness/health fanatic, and is the man behind Centr (the app I use); he’s using his platform to highlight the need to save the environment; I enjoy pretty much every movie he’s in and he comes across as an all-round nice guy. Plus he’s Thor, and having a Norse God at your dinner party would be pretty cool. Finally, the dinner wouldn’t be complete without Rachel.

Arnold Swartzenneger
The strong and the sweet: dinner party guests Arnold Schwarzenegger and Master Perfumer Anne Flipo
Anne Flipo with a bottle of her perfume

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“If you know what I mean” and “I need a Martini”. No explanation needed for the latter, but for the former, I don’t always explains things as plainly as they could be explained, and often question whether I have overcomplicated an answer to an otherwise simple question, so this is how I might finish said answer when I get that feeling and I stop speaking in order to check that I have been understood. If you know what I mean.

"For vermouth-sipping desert-island vibes": Fela Kuti and New Zealand seven-piece Fat Freddy's Drop

What’s your greatest regret?

I wish I was able to speak more than one language. Perhaps it’s time to start Japanese classes again.

What’s your current favourite box-set, TV programme or podcast?

We don’t own a TV, but I do enjoy anything with Sir David Attenborough in.

 

What time do you go to bed? 

On a work night I like to be in bed at around 10.30pm for a 5.15 wakeup. Over a weekend, though, I have been known to come home past midnight.

 

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