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Newly emerging Japanese gin could be just the tonic

"Nikka Coffey Gin" made by Nikka Whisky Distilling Co., left, "Roku" made by Suntory Spirits Ltd., center, and "Kinobi Kyoto Dry Gin" made by Whisk-e Ltd., right, are seen. (Mainichi)

Japanese liquor makers have been releasing a range of high-class gin brands -- with a distinctive local flavor -- as a follow-on product to domestic whisky, which enjoys a solid reputation around the world, in an attempt to win over a global audience.

    Made from grain, gin is a distilled alcoholic beverage that falls under the category of "spirits," and is often used in cocktails such as the classic "gin and tonic" combination. In recent years, there has also been an emergence of "craft gins" in the West, which are produced using sophisticated techniques and ingredients. Generally speaking, a bottle of standard gin costs about 1,000 yen while a bottle of craft gin sells for about 3,000 to 5,000 yen.

    As the global craft gin market expands, Japanese makers have also been launching their own craft brands one by one. For example, in late June, Nikka Whisky Distilling Co., which is part of Asahi Group Holdings, released a product called "Nikka Coffey Gin" -- with a suggested retail price of 4,500 yen -- and started exporting the beverage to the West in September.

    Making use of a continuous distillation technique that retains the scent of the original ingredients, Nikka Coffey Gin has a unique taste deriving from Japanese citrus fruits and spices such as yuzu and Japanese pepper. The response to the product has been favorable, with 2,000 cases planned to be sold domestically in 2017 -- which is double the original target -- and 2,000 cases aimed to be sold overseas over a 12-month period. Commenting on the shifting trends, Nikka Whisky Distilling has high hopes for the future, stating that, "Speciality gin is booming overseas, and people's interest in spirits in increasing."

    Similarly, Suntory Spirits Ltd. released a product called "Roku" in July, which it jointly developed with Beam Suntory Inc., and has been exporting the drink to nine countries across the world including Germany and some in Southeast Asia since September. The product possesses a cherry blossom scent and a yuzu flavor, stemming from its ingredients which include cherry blossom leaves, tea, and yuzu. So far, the beverage has proved to be so successful that its annual sales target was reached in just under a month, and projected domestic sales are four times higher than originally expected, at 4,000 cases.

    "Kinobi Kyoto Dry Gin," which was launched by Whisk-e Ltd. in October 2016, is said to be Japan's first craft gin. The beverage is made at a special distillery in Kyoto that was established in 2016, and consists of Kyoto-based ingredients such as green tea and Japanese cypress.

    In July this year, the drink won a gold award at an International Wine and Spirits Competition in the U.K., and has developed a strong international reputation. The product has also been exported to Europe and Asia, with plans to expand further to China and the U.S. within the year.

    According to Suntory, the high-class gin market -- i.e. bottles that sell for $20 or more -- expanded by 12 percent in 2016 compared to the previous year, and doubled over the six-year period since 2010. Compared to whisky, it is also easier to create distinctive flavors when making gin, and there is no need to leave it to mature. As a result, numerous makers are working on developing "Japanese gin" as the next popular beverage to follow on from Japanese whisky.

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