Japan is taking the drinking world by storm
Everyone who follows the trends in food and drink knows that in today’s topsy-turvy world, East has met West, West has met East, South has met North and North has met South.
The world in 2018 is not necessarily a melting pot, but more of a long buffet.
One doesn’t ask for wine and just expect it will be from France. One doesn’t request bourbon and assume it will be Kentucky-born. How about a sip of absinthe from Bastrop?
So, why is anybody acting surprised when a vodka martini shows up with a Made in Japan label?
If handed a gin and tonic and quizzed on which ingredient did not come from Japan, one would go to the back of the class if he answered, “The gin.” True fact: Japan has prohibitions on quinine, so there’s no true tonic water made there, just a sweet substitute that would horrify any gin-and-tonic lover. One can find international brands at some stores.
The gin, on the other hand, can be as Japanese as sushi, and there are many brands from which to choose.
Yes, less than a decade after Japan set the whisky-sipping world on its ear by producing and exporting some of the finest whiskies anywhere, the country is now doing the same with both vodka and gin. It began in 2017, and one year later, the demand and the varieties are growing as fast as it can be shaken and poured.
(The spelling “whiskey” is common in the United States and Ireland. The rest of the world, including Japan, Scotland and Canada, uses “whisky” and plural “whiskies”)
In truth, Japan has been making gin for more than 80 years. Suntory, the company whose Ao Vodka and Roku Gin are just coming into the U.S. market, was making it as far back as 1936. The problem was that the Japanese consumers just weren’t into the stuff, preferring beer, saki, shochu and whisky, so quantities were small. What changed was a sudden world-wide demand for vodkas and gin in the early part of the 21st century and a Western-culture-loving young generation in Japan that made producers realize they were sitting on a liquid gold mine.
By 2016, the production of gin went from a slow ferment to a full boil. It completely caught fire that year when several renowned Japanese whisky makers opened The Kyoto Distillery, the country’s first craft gin distillery. By the time the distillery’s Ki No Bi Dry Gin got to the United States two years later, it was getting accolades worldwide, including taking a gold medal at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in, of all the gin joints in the world, London.
Less than a year after the Kyoto whisky guys were bottling their first gin, Beam Suntory introduced the Japanese gin, Roku. That prompted one of Japan’s most notable whisky distillers, Nikka, to come out with its own Coffey Gin and Coffey Vodka.
How good are these gins? If there’s any truth to the Oscar Wilde quote, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” consider that a few distillers in the United Kingdom, the gin drinkingest place on Earth, are making “Japanese-style” gins.
One of the few places to bring in these Far Eastern imports to the Third Coast is the ever-imaginative Rosewater at 1606 Clear Lake City Blvd. in the Clear Lake area. That’s not too surprising since there are about 50 kinds of gin on hand there at any one time, said Pasha Morshedi, one of the owners.
“Nikka’s Coffey Gin and Kyoto Distillery’s Ki No Bi gin are chock full of unique flavors,” Morshedi said. “Nikka is full of bright citrus, with the classic juniper really taking a back seat, and Ki No Bi really set itself out to claim a unique identity, using botanicals like Japanese cypress, shisho, bamboo leaves and sansho peppers. It’s my favorite Japanese gin at the moment.”
The Japanese vodkas have received their own mound of kudos, but while the quality — and the prices — are quite high, vodka is, well, vodka. One just doesn’t get really all excited about vodka for the vodka itself. These, like all good vodkas, play best in cocktails.
The gin, on the other hand, is like a smooth Charleston drawl. With only a sip, each Japanese gin will say where it’s from. That’s magic made partly because Japan’s wild botanicals are rich, abundant and varied. There are plentiful citrus trees like shequasar and yuzu. Gin-friendly trees like silver birch, spruce and cypress are readily available, and then there’s an abundant supply of teas, spices and even the famed Japanese cherry blossoms. Each distillery practices a farm-to-bottle policy.
Nikka Coffey Gin, for example, uses 11 local botanicals, a number of which emit all kinds of citrus flavors. Ki No Bi Gin, which is not something from a “Star Wars” character but actually translates to “the beauty of the seasons,” features six different categories of botanicals. The use of wood chips, juniper and tea gives the taste a predominance of juniper, spice and a little heat.
“At some point, there is only so much you can do with the roughly 10 classic botanicals in the major styles of British gin, which makes up the bulk of the category,” Morshedi said. “So, to respond to that, gin producers in the U.S., Germany, France and even Argentina, among others, have been exploring new botanicals local to their regions to create a new and diverse array of flavors and aromatics. Japan has entered the fray with a few gins that really, wonderfully focus on exclusively Japanese botanicals, which is really exciting. I mean, we live in a hyperconnected world where everyone thinks they know everything. How cool is it to have a chance to discover something completely new?”
Other than Rosewater, few, if any, local bars in the area carry them yet, including the major Japanese restaurants in the area. A manager at one of those was very insistent that Japan did not make gin.
Neither Suntory Ao Vodka nor Roku Gin have made it into the Texas market yet, but they are available in specialty stores in some other states such as New York, California, Florida, Missouri, Connecticut and New Jersey. Texas law prevents it being shipped here, but consumers can bring in up to one gallon, should travel plans take them to those locations.
The good news is, the other leading brands are available. The bad news is, they are both in limited supply and require more than just a dash into the neighborhood liquor store. Houston Wine Merchant, for example, has the Ki No Bi Dry Gin and the Nikka Coffey Vodka, but it does require driving to one of its Houston stores to get it. Be sure to call first to make sure there’s some in stock.
Similarly, some Spec’s Wine, Spirits & Finer Foods locations in Houston stock both the Nikka Coffey Vodka and the Nikka Coffey Gin, but none are outside of the Houston city limits. But customers can request a Spec’s store bring in however many bottles they want to buy and pick them up a day or so later, said Jim Detmore, spirits buyer for the chain.
As for cocktails, these Japanese imports go wherever good vodka and gin go, but the abundance of flavors in the gin suggest any mixing should be done with caution so as not to bury what makes this liquor exceptional.
That gin and tonic, for example? There’s a drink called the Japanese Gin & Tonic, which is served with ice and slices of ginger to bring out the citrus flavors of the Coffey Gin.
“The vodkas certainly mix as easily as any other vodka on the market,” Morshedi said. “You really might only notice a difference in a very carefully stirred vodka martini or a delicate highball. But the gins offer really unique opportunities for cocktails. Their special botanical blends give bartenders new accent flavors to play with.”
It does give the idea of ordering out for Japanese a whole new meaning.
Created by Rosewater in the Clear Lake area
2 ounces Ki No Bi gin
1⁄2 ounce Yellow Chartreuse
½ ounce pineapple gomme*
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 mint sprig for garnish
Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice and shake. Strain into glass.
Rosewater’s Morshedi suggests if it’s hotter than 90 degrees outside, pour over fresh ice into an old fashioned glass and top with a splash of soda. Otherwise, pour straight into a coupe glass.
Garnish it with a sprig of mint.
*Gomme is a gum syrup commonly used as a cocktail sweetener. Pineapple gomme can be purchased at some specialty stores selling cocktail ingredients or online from various outlets, including Liber & Co., based in Austin.