The number of gins being produced around the world is quite staggering – at the last count there were well over 600 varieties on the market, flavoured with everything from colour-changing flowers to red wood ants. Yet it’s been a while since a new one really quickened my pulse. On a recent trip to Japan, however, I visited the new Kyoto Distillery and discovered a gin that did just that.
The gin was Ki No Bi, a small-batch recipe that’s Japanese from the ground up. The base spirit is concocted from rice, the black bottle is handmade by artisans in Osaka, and, aside from the juniper and orris, every botanical is homegrown, giving it a distinctively Japanese flavour: pungent citrusy yuzu, aromatic shiso, spicy sansho pepper, green tea, ginger and bamboo leaves (which have a fat fruitiness rather like pineapple upside-down cake) are just some of the exotica flavouring this unusual gin.
Virtually the only thing not Japanese about Ki No Bi is its creators, all luminaries of the British drinks scene – head distiller Alex Davies used to work at Chase, and co-founders Marcin Miller and David Croll created The Number One Drinks Company, the importer that blazed a trail for Japanese whisky in the UK. I did wonder how these gaijins and their upstart distillery would be received locally, but it seems they’ve gone down well. One of their most high-profile supporters has been Kyoto’s exclusive Rocking Chair bar, so I headed there for a drink.
Styled in the manner of an old Kyoto house, this intimate, low-lit hideaway has lately risen to international attention thanks to owner and head bartender Kenji Tsubokura, who recently won the World Bartender of the Year award at the IBA World Cocktail Championships. Tsubokura’s approach to bartending is resolutely Japanese: poised, deft and utterly bewitching.
Instead of selecting from a cocktail menu, we did things omakase-style and left the choice of drinks up to the bartender (the word “omakase” originates from the Japanese for “to entrust”). And Tsubokura rose to the occasion with a fine succession of Ki No Bi cocktails, including a peppery martini seasoned with sansho bitters and a G&T lengthened with a tart dash of iyokan juice.
The Kyoto Distillery is clearly off to a good start – and according to Davies is not done yet. This year will see two new launches from the distillery – aside from its existing gin. Exactly what they are, Davies wouldn’t say, but if Ki No Bi’s anything to go by, they’re bound to be good.