I recently traveled to Japan with a mission. Well, several missions, actually, some of which were work-related. But one of those missions was to sample as many Japan-made gins as possible. Ever since the country debuted its very first native distillation two or three years ago, craft gin has kind of exploded over there. It’s a drop in the rocks glass compared to Japan’s extensive history of whisky, of course, but it’s a start, with a couple dozen different locally made varieties available if you look around.
For this trip, I was able to find a surprising number of gins sold in small, sample-sized bottles rather than the full 700 or 750mL bottles you normally buy booze in. All told, I brought home something like six or seven different indigenous gins in tiny bottles ranging in size from 80mL to 375mL (plus one full-sized bottle of Mars Distillery’s Wa Bi, for good measure).
And now, it is time to begin sampling them. Up first, the Kyoto Distillery’s Ki No Tea gin.
Now that is a lovely bottle. In its packaging (it comes in a sampler case with two other Kyoto gins), it looks black. But liberate it and bring it into the light and it’s revealed as a deep green, somewhat frosted glass, whose coloration represents its standout ingredient: Green tea. (The gin, however, is completely clear.)
I think, and don’t quote me on this, but I think this is Kyoto Distillery’s incredible Ki No Bi Gin infused with some sort of green tea. Matcha? Sencha? Some other -cha? I dunno. But I can definitely say that the tea element is quite assertive here, even moreso than the black tea in Drumshanbo’s Gunpowder Gin. The effect is quite different than in Gunpowder Gin, too. Where the black tea gives Gunpowder a distinctive but not overpowering peppery earthiness, Ki No Tea’s tea element really dominates both the aroma and the flavor of this gin by giving it a richer, more herbaceous taste.
Standard Ki No Bi already downplays the trademark juniper of basic gin in flavor of native Japanese botanicals, e.g. shiso leaf and yuzu, and Ki No Tea pushes even those elements to the back as well. You can still taste them, especially the yuzu—that sour sharpness lingers faintly on the tongue after everything else has faded—but really, the most potent flavor here is, unsurprisingly, green tea.
Well, I say “most potent,” but that might be a misrepresentation. This is a very mild gin. Sipped straight, it certainly hits you with the intense, biting taste of straight gin—a dagger of alcohol to the tongue. But add a dash of water or let it mingle with ice for a few minutes and the flavor opens up to become more subdued. The botanicals feel almost like a background for the main event: The green tea. The tea gives Ki No Tea a flavor that is (for lack of a better description) much fuller and rounder on the tongue than you expect from gin, which typically has more of a citrusy bite to it.
I can’t say I like Ki No Tea as much as its parent Ki No Bi, but it’s still quite good—not to mention unique. There’s only 200 mL in this mini-bottle, so I need to use it sparingly, but I’m eager to see how it works in cocktails… maybe something like a Last Word or an Aviation. And, of course, I’m eager to try some of these other Japanese gins.