A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Gin

By Avah Atherton
Updated: March 15, 2024

Japanese gin, a newcomer to the global spirits landscape, has quickly garnered praise for its distinct attributes and diverse flavor profiles. Japan's reputation for meticulous craftsmanship, particularly in its sake and whisky production, has paved the way for the enthusiastic reception of Japanese gin domestically and abroad. Setting itself apart with a variety of indigenous botanicals, Japanese gin mimics the nation's topography and seasonal bounty, offering a taste of Japan's natural tapestry.

A Brief History of Japanese Gin


Traditionally associated with England and the Netherlands, gin was actually the first Western-style spirit ever produced in Japan. During the Edo Period (1603–1867), the Dutch trading enclave on Dejima Island in Nagasaki Bay introduced gin to locals. However, due to import restrictions, the spirit's development in Japan was limited. Instead, the focus was directed towards refining and innovating alcoholic spirits such as sake, shochu, and whisky, utilizing locally sourced ingredients. 

It wasn't until 1936 that Suntory ventured into gin production with the launch of Japan's first London-style gin, Hermes Dry Gin, although it failed to gain significant traction. Then, in the early 2000s, Japanese distillers, renowned for their mastery of whisky, began to explore the possibilities of gin-making. 

In 2016, a small distillery in Kyoto debuted Japan's first artisanal gin, marking the beginning of a new era for Japanese gin. Since then, the emergence of artisanal and region-specific gins has been marked by the use of local ingredients and innovation. In Europe, gin's flavor is largely defined by juniper berries, which impart a noticeably piney flavor. However, there are no strict regulations on the quantity of juniper berries used, so Japanese distilleries have embraced this lack of constraints. Regional diversity marks the Japanese gin landscape, with each area offering its unique twist. 

In the southern tropical regions of Okinawa, for instance, gin makers combine juniper with locally abundant citrus varieties such as shikuwasa and kabosu, resulting in gins with a refreshing and tropical flavor profile. On the other hand, craft distilleries in Hiroshima, situated in the west, have pushed the boundaries into realms previously unexplored. Capitalizing on the city's coastal location, Hiroshima's craft distilleries have taken a unique approach by infusing gins with oyster shells. This innovative technique creates a distinctive seafood-inspired pairing that perfectly captures the region's culinary ingenuity.

Must-Know Japanese Gin Brands

Ki No Bi Kyoto-Style Dry Gin (Kyoto)

Ki no Bi Gin

This gin, from the Kyoto Distillery, perfectly embodies the meaning of its name "the beauty of the seasons." Distilled from rice and mineral-rich water from the underwater springs located in Fushimi, Ki No Bi uses yellow yuzu citrus, hinoki (Japanese cypress), bamboo, red shiso (perilla mint), gyokuro (shade-grown green tea), and sansho (Japanese pepper) to create a complex and flavorful experience.

Nikka Coffey Gin (Hokkaido)

This gin, from the whisky giant Nikka, features citrus and more citrus. Yuzu, kabosu (a type of sour citrus), amanatsu (a sweet citrus fruit), shequasar (a very sour citrus) form the base together with other fruity flavor profiles. Undoubtedly due to the company's renown, this citrusy gin was the first Japanese gin to be widely available in the USA. 

Suntory Roku Gin (Osaka)

Roku Japanese Gin

The House of Suntory, another major player in Japanese whisky, offers Roku gin, named for the six uniquely Japanese botanicals it incorporates: sakura (cherry blossom) flower and leaf, sencha (green tea grown in direct sunlight) and gyokuro green teas, sansho pepper, and yuzu peel. Each botanical is harvested at the peak of its season and distilled separately before being combined to capture the essence of Japan throughout the year.

Kyoya Shuzo Premium Yuzu Gin (Miyazaki)

This gin from a renowned shochu distillery utilizes the same sweet potato spirit base used for shochu. It results in a full-bodied gin with a heavy dose of yuzu alongside hyuganatsu (a sweet-sour citrus) and sansho pepper for a peppery finish.

The Miyashita Sake Brewery Gin (Okayama)

Shochu forms the base of this gin alongside 10 other Japanese botanicals, including peaches and grapes. Processed in much the same way as more traditional alcohols, the result is a smoky oak barrel-aged gin, adding another dimension to Japan's diverse gin offerings.

Etsu Gin (Hokkaido)

One of Japan's first craft gins, Etsu Gin from the Asahikawa Distillery was awarded the Double Gold Medal at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Made with Hokkaido juniper, gyokuro, sansho pepper, yuzu, bitter-orange peel, coriander, licorice, angelica root, and water from the Taisetsu Mountains, it delivers herbal underpinnings with a yuzu finish. 

How to Drink Japanese Gin

Gin is one of Japan's most popular drinks and can be savored in various ways. Traditional methods include having it on the rocks, neat, or in a cocktail. For some variety, try a classic gin and tonic garnished with thin strips of ginger to elevate it from ordinary to superb. Take things a step further with the Japanese version of this classic drink, the Gin Sonic. It blends equal parts soda water with tonic water (soda + tonic = sonic), allowing the nuanced flavors of Japanese gin to shine. Use garnishes like citrus peels, fresh flowers, and sprigs of herbs to complete the look of your drink. Pair citrus-heavy gin with seafood dishes and save the gin with spicy profiles for complementary foods like curry or smoked meats. For tea-based gin, give your tastebuds a break with neutral and delicate food pairings like desserts or appetizers. 

The Craft Gin Movement


The craft gin movement champions small-batch distilleries that prioritize local ingredients, experimentation, and a hands-on approach. These craft distillers are not afraid to push boundaries, like the Hiroshima gins infused with oyster shells, and their dedication to quality and innovation ensures a constant stream of exciting new gins. Unlike the mass-produced gins dominated by juniper, craft distilleries have the freedom to explore the subtle nuances of Japanese flavors. This focus on small-scale production and regional flair has given rise to the incredible diversity we see in Japanese gin today. 

With a focus on local ingredients, meticulous craftsmanship, and a spirit of experimentation, Japanese gin embodies the essence of Japan's rich cultural heritage and natural bounty. Newcomers or connoisseurs embarking on an exploration of Japanese gin can anticipate a diverse array of flavors and expressions that celebrate the country's ingenuity. Wherever you are on your journey, raise a glass and say cheers to the continued evolution of Japanese gin and the exciting adventures that lie ahead!

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Avah Atherton
Avah, a proud Trinidadian, has a meat mouth, a sweet tooth, and a mission to find good food and great experiences. Based in Tokyo, she enjoys long walks (especially if they lead to somewhere delicious), reading, live performances, and art exhibitions.
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