When Did Japanese Gin Start? A Journey Through the History

Japanese gin is the new ‘in’ thing in the world of gin. Spearheaded by the success of Japanese whisky, its gin is also picking up in popularity across the world. 

However, since the tradition of gin distilling did not begin in Japan, how did the Japanese end up making their own gin? When did Japanese gin start?

The earliest gin was brought to Japan by Dutch trading vessels sometime in the 17th century. Japan successfully distilled its own gin in 1812, although commercially successful gin in Japan only appeared in the 1920s. There are currently over 30 distilleries making gin in Japan today.

This article looks at the history of Japanese gin, such as when it started, how they were produced, and when it exploded into the world scene. We also looked into how Japanese gin differs from regular gin during its making process.

When Did Japanese Gin Start?

The first Japanese gin was brought to Japan by Dutch trading vessels to the port of Dejima, Nagasaki, during the Edo period (1603 – 1867). It was consumed as a foreign import until Japan was forced to produce its own gin in 1812 when trade was disrupted.

Gin, as an alcoholic beverage, has its roots in the Netherlands. It was actually introduced and imported into England for its medicinal properties. It was also the Dutch who exported and introduced gin to the Japanese.

During the earlier part of the Edo period (1603 – 1867), Japan opened its ports and widely traded with them. During this time, Japan was introduced to many foodstuffs from all over the world, such as curry, cheese, and gin. 

During this period, gin is consumed as a luxury good, and is fully imported. There are no local distilleries making gin, probably because there is no technical know-how and the right botanicals. 

Plus, Shochu is a more popular local spirit much appreciated by many Japanese. Plus, being a local product, it is cheaper than gin, which needs to be imported from half a world away.

What Are The Earliest Japanese Gin Like?

The first locally distilled Japanese gin came out in 1812. Other smaller distilleries then tried to make their own gin by using local Shochu as base alcohol and experimenting with local botanicals such as Sakuka flowers and green tea. The first commercially successful gin was the Suntory Gin, released in the 1920s.

In 1812, the importation of gin to Japan was disrupted, perhaps due to the Napoleonic wars in Europe. The Netherlands was occupied by France, which may have caused trading to not be smooth. This resulted in Japan not being able to get its thirst for gin quenched. 

As a result, a local attempted to make gin himself. Shige Dennoshin, who also happens to be the Deshima commissioner, produced a rather fine gin. It was described to be on the sweeter side, as he could not eliminate the flavor from the resin of the Juniper berries.

Japanese gin started from this base and began growing. 

Many Japanese gin makers are originally Shochu distillers who attempted to use what they had to make gin. As a result, earlier Japanese gin tended to use Shochu as base alcohol. Then they infused botanicals to make gin. 

This practice also extended into experimenting with local botanicals, such as Sakura flowers, Sanshu peppers, green tea, and more. This may be done to reduce the cost since importing botanicals from Europe may be expensive. 

With the rapid modernization of Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century, Japanese gin became an industrialized commercial business. It was in the 1920s that commercially successful Japanese gin first appeared. 

Suntory was one of the first makers of alcoholic beverages organized as a big business. They were also the first to release the first commercially successful Japanese gin, the Suntory Gin. This was followed up by many more Japanese gins from other distillers, such as Nikka and Marz Shuzo. 

The world war disrupted production, but things picked up again after the war. Throughout the period between the end of the war and the millennium, Japanese gin was produced mainly for local consumption, and not many were exported overseas. 

How Does Japanese Gin Become Popular Worldwide?

Japanese gin’s popularity may be attributed to the success of Japanese whiskeys in the 2000s. As people learn to appreciate Japanese whiskies such as Yamazaki, Hakushu, or Nikka, many also naturally explore Japanese distilleries and discover Japanese gin. 

By the turn of the millennium, many major Japanese alcoholic beverage giants such as Suntory, Nikka, and Kirin began to contemplate the international expansion of their products. 

This resulted in more Japanese alcoholic beverages such as beer, whiskey, gin, and vodka being exposed to the international market. 

Of these drinks, the Japanese whiskies really captured the hearts of many drinkers. In the first decade of the millennium, Japanese whiskies began winning many medals and awards from whiskey competitions, beating even the traditional Scotch distillers. 

Japanese whiskies such as Hakushu, Nikka, and Yamazaki began to appear in connoisseur circuits, which eventually led to an interest in Japanese distilleries. Many eventually discovered Japanese gin and fell in love with it.

Some of the more popular Japanese gins today are Roku, Komasa, Tenjaku, and Ki No Bi. As of today, over 30 distilleries are making Japanese gin. 

What Makes Japanese Gin Unique?

Japanese gin may be unique in how they are distilled and the base alcohol and botanicals used. Japanese gin may use local Shochu as base alcohol while using local botanicals such as Sakura flowers or green tea. This resulted in a unique taste, which may appeal to drinkers.

Japanese gin’s success in the international market may not just be a streak of luck. They can offer a taste experience unique to other gin types, which means Japanese gin eventually developed its own legion of fans. 

As a start, Japanese gin tends to use Shochu as the base grain for its gin. Shochu is a local spirit, typically made from rice, barley, or buckwheat. This creates the first difference, as Shoshu may taste different from the base grain alcohol used to make London dry gin

The botanicals used in Japanese gin are also different. Aside from using traditional gin botanicals such as juniper berries, angelica roots, or coriander, some distillers also use local plants. These may include Sakura flowers, Sanshu peppers, green tea, or more.

One example is Roku. This Japanese gin from Suntory uses traditional gin botanicals with six additional local ingredients: Sakura flower, Sakura leaf, Sencha tea, Gyokuro tea, Yuzu peel, and Sansho pepper. In fact, the name ‘Roku’ means six in the Japanese language.

ABV: 43%
Country: Japan
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The infusion of local flavors resulted in a rather uniquely tasting gin that may appeal to some drinkers. Japanese gin’s unique taste also becomes additional flavors for mixologists to explore when they create new recipes.

Final Thoughts

Japanese gin has a fascinating history and unique approach to production that sets it apart from traditional gins.

The use of unique botanicals and innovative distilling techniques has resulted in a spirit that offers a distinctive flavor profile and a level of complexity that sets it apart from other gins.

It’s exciting to see how Japanese gin will continue to evolve and be embraced by the wider world of spirits.

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