As Japan’s first gin distillery, The Kyoto Distillery has a lot to live up to. Purposefully located within Japan’s old capital of Kyoto, a historic city known for their centuries of tradition and craftsmanship, the distillery seeks to honour the spirit of the place with their own craft creations.
Have they succeeded? To a large extent, we think so. To stand out in a world where new gins are coming online every day is an uphill task, to say the least. But they have done a number of things to impress us.
The first thing that caught our attention is how they’ve sought to eschew the use of Neutral Grain Spirit, or NGS, a high-proof tasteless alcohol usually made from cereal grains. Instead, they are using a rice-based spirit they source from another Japanese distillery. It is common practice for gin distilleries to not produce the actual base spirits themselves.
While rice is, of course, still a grain, the producers of this rice-based spirit made sure to impart important characteristics into it, such as a velvety texture and subtle tones of sweet grass, to ensure that the spirit retains a personality.
Another impressive feature is their unique blending process. Gins are usually made by running the base spirit through a pot or column still with all the botanical ingredients macerated/infusing inside. The Kyoto Distillery does this too, except they do this separately for six different botanical bases they refer to as Elements.
[Read more: Local flavours driving craft gin innovation among Japanese distilleries]
The six Elements are Base, Citrus, Tea, Herbal, Spice and Fruity & Floral. The Base contains juniper, orris and hinoki; Citrus is made using yuzu and lemon; Tea is from gyokuro alone; Herbal comes from sansho and kinome; Spice is made using ginger; while Fruity & Floral uses shiso and bamboo leaves as ingredients. It’s a good mix of common gin botanicals and unique Japanese ones.
To produce their gins, they then blend the Elements differently, based on the profile they’re after. It’s an interesting practice perhaps inspired by the whisky making process, where the art of blending is more commonplace.
All gins are usually watered down after distillation before bottling. And for The Kyoto Distillery, they’ve done the right thing – in our books – by using Fushimi’s natural, mineral-laden groundwater to do so. Sake brewers in the region have been using and praising the quality of Fushimi groundwater for ages, and the use of it in their gin shows the astuteness of their distillers.
Below, we give our thoughts on two of The Kyoto Distillery’s gins – their flagship Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin, and their much-raved Ki No Tea Gin – by first tasting them on their own, then recommending how to best use them in cocktails.
Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin
With a name meaning ‘The Beauty of the Seasons’, the expectation is a multi-faceted yet elegant gin. And in many ways, that is exactly what you’ll get. Nothing screams. There is no sharpness. There is no one angular note to pinpoint as the defining character. Rather, there is a harmony in the subtlety of its myriad flavours.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t an assertive gin. By no means. It is punchy, clocking in at 45.7% ABV, a proof higher than the usual 40%, giving it heft and more pronounced nuances. What happens is that the nose, start, mid-palate, and finish are all different. Expect a wave of citrus and juniper to hit you first, followed by lots of woody forest tones leading to a warm spicy finale.
For cocktails, we’d recommend a Gin Sonic and a Gimlet. The former is a variant of the Gin & Tonic, while the latter is the classic as you know it. The Gin Sonic gets its name from using soda water as well as tonic water in the mix, thus the name, and for a gentler flavour profile. The Gimlet is preferred over, say, a Martini or Gibson, as the tartness from lime juice contrasts nicely with the herbal-leaning characteristics of the Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin. The full recipes can be found at the end of this article.
Ki No Tea Kyoto Dry Gin
As you can glean from the name, this is a tea-forward take on their signature gin. To that end, they’ve collaborated with master tea blenders and growers Hori-Shichimeien to source for premium teas to use in their stills. In addition to gyokuro, the Tea element used in the Ki No Tea has tencha as well, giving it more obvious tea tones exclusive to this blend.
The result is very unlike its flagship gin. Gone are the arboreal notes. Rather, in its place are toasty tea bouquets and a more pronounced juniper backbone to hold up the matcha accents. The tea isn’t dominant yet distinct. And at a strong 45.1% ABV, it is a great gin to use in spirit-forward concoctions.
The Ki No Tea does wonders in a Martini and a Negroni (with modifications). Both are different beasts, with the Martini allowing the Ki No Tea plenty of room to shine on its own, while in a Negroni, gives the cult classic gratifying green tea potency for added layers of complexity. The full recipes can be found below.
Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin 50ml
Tonic Water 100ml
Soda Water 100ml
Lemon peel garnish
1. Add the gin into a tall glass filled with ice
2. Add tonic water into the glass
3. Add all soda water or until glass is full
4. Incorporate the ingredients by giving it a few gentle lifts
5. Express lemon peel and drop it into the glass
Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin 45ml
Fresh lime juice 15ml
Simple syrup 20ml
Lime wheel garnish
1. Add gin, lime juice and simple syrup into shaker
2. Fill shaker with ice and shake well
3. Strain contents into chilled coupe glass
4. Garnish with lime wheel
Martini (or as The Kyoto Distillery likes to call it, the Mar-tea-ni)
Ki No Tea Kyoto Dry Gin 60ml
Dry vermouth 15ml (we recommend Noilly Prat)
Pitted olive 1
Lemon peel garnish
1. Add gin and vermouth into a mixing glass
2. Fill mixing glass with ice and stir gently
3. Strain mixture into chilled martini glass
4. Express lemon peel and discard
5. Drop olive into martini glass
Ki No Tea Kyoto Dry Gin 50ml
Rosso vermouth 20ml (we recommend Cucielo)
Orange peel garnish
1. Add gin, campari and vermouth into a mixing glass
2. Fill mixing glass with ice and stir gently
3. Strain mixture into rocks glass with large ice cube
4. Express orange peel and drop it into the glass
‘How to Drink’ is a feature segment on Spill that goes in-depth into specific spirit bottlings to really understand the craft behind their make. More than a review, we delve into their distilling philosophy, understand how it’s different, and offer ways to best enjoy them.
[Read more: How these regional brews and spirits make good use of Asian spices]
About the Author
Dannon Har is the Managing Editor of Spill. Discovering his innate gift for drinking only at a ripe age, he spares no time trying to find more delicious drops to imbibe during his time on Earth. When he’s not minding every detail at Spill, he spends his time concocting luscious libations and sharing them with folks that visit his home bar.