Craft beer and boutique gin ready to conquer new market: Japan

A Kyoto distillery is drawing inspiration from the city's history to produce a high-quality Japanese spirit offering a contemporary twist on a traditional white spirit

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 3:02pm

For Japanese drinkers, the preferred tipple has long been beer followed by sake, whisky or wine. In recent years, that approach to drinking has been overtaken by an upsurge of interest in both craft beers and cocktails.

David Croll believes the time is now ripe to educate Japanese palates in all the complexities and subtle nuances of a drink more associated with the Raj and warm summer afternoons with the sound of croquet mallets in the background.

Croll, who has lived in Japan for more than 20 years and in 1995 founded a company that specialises in importing craft drinks to an increasingly thirsty market, expects the first batch of craft ginas early as this spring; it will be made in a distillery that is presently being constructed in the ancient capital of Kyoto.

The first copper distilling pot has been delivered and is undergoing customs clearance procedures, Croll says, while head distiller Alex Davies has taken up residence in Kyoto and works to source the very finest local ingredients for what will be Japan’s first craft gin.

“We have been spending a lot of time trying to identify suitable botanicals and recently went on a trip to the very north of Kyoto Prefecture, to a yuzu farm run by an 88-year-old lady and her daughter,” Croll says.

A yellowish citrus fruit with an acidic but fragrant juice, yuzu is precisely the sort of local flavour that Croll wants to use to infuse his gin.

“Our primary aim is to make the best gin that we possibly can, something that will be a match for anything already on the market,” he said. “Having said that, we are very keen to utilise local ingredient.

“For example, with the citrus elements, as well as looking at imported oranges, lemons and limes, we are evaluating domestic fruits – such as green and yellow yuzu, sudachi, kabosu and hebesu,” he says. “We have already done some tests at a friendly UK distillery using ingredients sourced in Kyoto – and the results have been amazing.”

Another critical component will be the soft waters of the Fushimi district of the city, which was also where the sake industry evolved, creating some of the finest sakes in all of Japan.

Croll is working with UK-based Marcin Miller, the founder of Whisky Magazine, with whom he first teamed up in 2006 to start selling individual casks of whisky from the Karuizawa Distillery through The Number One Drinks Co. UK. They are now hoping that their latest venture – The Number One Drinks Co. Japan – will elevate the status of a spirit that lags far behind Scotch in popularity – for the moment.

“Gin is a mainstay for the many wonderful cocktail bars in this country, although the off-trade is perhaps limited by the small size of most home drinks cabinets,” Croll says.

And even though he comes from a background in Scotch – his online import company is called Whisk-e Ltd – Croll wants to nibble into whisky’s dominance of the market.

“We believe there is huge potential in Japan and we are already starting to see this with the rise in interest in some of the imported craft gins, like Sipsmith,” he says. “For a long time, gin consumers in Japan were brand-insensitive, simply ordering a ‘gin-tonic’ or specifying a dry martini as either gin or vodka-based. Consumers here are now at the start of a long and fascinating journey to discover the range of flavours and aromas available.”

And that is a trend not dissimilar to the explosive growth in Japan of craft beers and, more recently, craft sakes.

Asked why the company selected Kyoto for the distillery, Croll says it is a great deal more than simply the soft water and abundance of ideal ingredients.

“We also draw inspiration from the incredible history of the city and its combination of the traditional and the contemporary,” he says.

“We want to make a product the people of Kyoto can be proud of and feel is true to the values of their wonderful city. I really can’t think of a better place to try to produce a high-quality Japanese spirit.

“We also want to create something that offers Japan’s bartending community a unique and contemporary twist on a traditional white spirit,” he says, adding, “And, hopefully, a few of the 20 million-plus overseas visitors to Japan every year now might look upon this as a tasty ‘omiyage’ [souvenir] to take back home. And finally, we hope to be able to fill some of the international demand for high-end Japanese beverages.”

The two things that Croll and his team have yet to decide upon – although he says they are “very close” – are the name of Japan’s first craft gin and the design of the label.

The new name will need to have credibility in Kyoto’s Gion district as well as cachet in Hong Kong, Honolulu and beyond.

“We are working with a glass company in Osaka to create a unique bottle design that will incorporate the embossed logo of the distillery,” he says. “This and the other elements of the design are being coordinated by our British design team, who have lived in Kyoto for a decade or more. And again, Kyoto provides an abundance of local crafts for us to consider, such as washi paper, karakami woodblock prints or pewter or copper drinking vessels.”

And asked how he intends to drink the first fruit of his labours, Croll is still undecided.

“I’m actually a huge Negroni fan, although that is a drink that does not necessarily do full justice to the complexity and balanced make-up of a gin,” he admits.

“To savour the gin’s uniqueness, I would have to choose between a very dry martini and the classic G&T.”

Barman, make that two.