Japan has become the latest market to experience the gin revolution, with two pioneering British spirits experts at the forefront. Gin enthusiasts Marcin Miller and David Croll have long associations with the country, and have established Japan’s first dedicated artisanal gin distillery.
In 2016, they launched KI NO BI (‘The Beauty of the Seasons’) Kyoto Dry Gin, inspired by Japanese traditions and ingredients. It was named Most Innovative Spirits Launch of 2016 by Spirits Business, and awarded a Gold Medal by the International Wine & Spirits Competition. KI NO Bi was also ranked in the Top Ten Trending Gin Brands in Drink’s International’s annual survey. Marcin and David tell us their story
The Gin Guild: Can you explain why you decided to establish a craft distillery in Japan – a dream or a shrewd business opportunity, or both?
Marcin Miller: Any business that hopes to succeed needs to be fired by both passion and a sound business idea. I have worked with my co-founder David Croll since 1999, that was my first trip to Japan, whereas David has been based in Japan for over 25 years.
Although our professional experience lay primarily in whisky, we are both gin enthusiasts and the idea of pioneering a new category appealed. We come at it from a love of gin rather than from a purely commercial perspective.
GG: Why did you choose Kyoto?
David Croll: The answer to ‘Why Kyoto?’ is a long, multi-layered one, but I’ve always felt Kyoto was a very special place since I first visited in 1985.
The extraordinary culture of artisanship and creativity over many centuries seemed to resonate perfectly with what Marcin and I were trying to achieve with The Kyoto Distillery, and on deeper investigation, we found a wealth of wonderful ingredients right on our doorstep; the waters of Fushimi, the teas of Uji, the yuzu and ginger of Ayabe (all Kyoto Prefecture) to name but a few.
GG: What challenges have you faced in establishing your distillery and your gins?
David Croll: As the first dedicated gin distillery in Japan, and the first spirits licence holder in Kyoto Prefecture, we didn’t have a large domestic knowledge-base to tap into, so the project has been very much an Anglo-Japanese one, although our Head Distiller, Alex Davies, is Welsh. Given the lack of a precedent, it has been a cooperative learning experience together with the local tax and fire departments.
GG: Are you aiming at export markets or the Japanese market, or both?
Marcin Miller: The majority of our sales are in Japan but we have been exporting selectively since the beginning of 2017. There has been no shortage of interest from export markets; wherever possible, we responded positively but this has proved unsustainable. It is unlikely we will enter any new territories in 2018.
GG: Has Japan joined the gin revolution? Other than the few new Japanese gins that have launched recently, is there a wide range of gins available, and are they gaining in popularity with the Japanese?
David Croll: Gin has always been around but largely at the budget to mid-end of the market and almost exclusively as an ingredient in classic cocktails.
It is only really since the emergence of domestically-produced artisanal gins such as KI NO BI that most bartenders and consumers have started to pay attention to this new world and explore the opportunities provided by the gin revolution.
Marcin Miller: Now the major Japanese distilling companies have followed our lead, we anticipate – although clearly export will be key for them – they will invest pretty heavily in the domestic market.
GG: How is gin drunk – Martinis or G&T style?
David Croll: The classic cocktails are by far the most popular way to consume gin but we’ve seen a lot of people enjoying KI NO BI either straight or on-the-rocks, or even in more Japanese styles, such as served with hot water.
GG: Tell us about the botanicals you use and how they make your gin different?
Marcin Miller: We use 11 botanicals, nine of which are from Japan (domestically grown juniper and orris are not available). As much as possible we try to source botanicals from Kyoto Prefecture from farmers that we know and frequently visit.
At the time of writing we’re just about to set off on our annual yuzu pilgrimage to a farm in the north of Kyoto, run by 90-year-old Mrs Tanaka. As well as ensuring maximum freshness and quality, we think this approach gives KI NO BI a real integrity and provenance.
Although not a botanical, a key difference is the use of a rice-based spirit; KI NO BI has a smooth and creamy sweetness which can be attributed to this. Also, the cultural importance of rice in Japan cannot be overstated.
GG: How important has the bottling and labelling been to the success of your gin?
Marcin Miller: The packaging has been an integral part of the overall product development. The bottle, derived from the original Karuizawa Single Malt bottle, was created in conjunction with Sakai Glass, an Osaka–based firm that supplies bottles for many of the limited edition Japanese whisky releases, whilst the screen-printed design (which led on to the product naming) was a collaboration with a local ‘karakami’ atelier founded in 1624.
The pack is important as we buy with our eyes, but our experience in the drinks industry tells us that a pretty label won’t sell you a second bottle. From my perspective it is all about the liquid; the care and attention we take in making our gin should, however, be highlighted by the packaging. We’ve taken the opportunity to illustrate how rooted KI NO BI is in Kyoto.
GG: What are your plans for the next 12 months?
Marcin Miller: Part of the fun of operating on a relatively small scale is that we can experiment and launch limited editions.
In 2017 we released a few thousand bottles of a higher strength variant of KI NO BI (encouraged by Ueno-san of Ginza’s Bar High Five, who requested an official bottling for the Tokyo International Bar Show), plus the extraordinary KI NO TEA (using two top-grade teas from Uji) and a wood-aged variant which had matured in a cask from the legendary Karuizawa Distillery. Alex is extremely creative and between us we have no shortage of ideas…so expect a few surprises!
GG: Do you have any predictions for how the gin industry will develop in Japan?
David Croll: The Japanese market loves booms but I’m hopeful what we’re seeing in premium artisanal gins will prove to be altogether much more sustainable. The range of tastes and aromas, the intricate attention to detail and the layers of back story that these provide all resonate deeply with Japanese consumers and I believe will help to carve out a new category.