Tonight we're drinking the very first products to come out of Chugoku Jozo's new Sakurao Distillery: Sakurao Gin Original and Sakurao Gin Limited.
Founded in 1918, Chugoku Jozo is already fairly well known for the Togouchi brand of Japanese whisky. But again I have to tread lightly when I call it "Japanese whisky" here: Chugoku Jozo imports Scotch and only ages it in their facilities, namely a former railroad tunnel that's kept at a constant 15 degrees Celsius. Since they're not actually distilling any whisky themselves, calling it a Japanese whisky doesn't sit well with most serious whisky drinkers. We've talked about that plenty.
Or at least that was the story until late last year. Chugoku Jozo surprised pretty much everyone with the announcement of their new Sakurao Distillery, kicking off operations just shy of the company's centennial anniversary. They've already announced that they will indeed be making whisky at this facility. But that's still a few years away! Before this, we get to try their craft gins. It's a business model that's we've seen in plenty of craft distilleries worldwide. Let's jump right into the gins.
Sakurao Gin Original
At 2000 yen before tax, this is the most affordable Japanese craft gin we've seen so far. That's 33% cheaper Kozue, the pine-forward craft gin that I thought was alright from Wakayama. If Japanese craft gins want to win shelf space from international brands at Tokyo bars, this is the price point they need to be targeting, as it allows bartenders to offer something entirely Japanese, yet also isn't something you need to charge customers extra for. Sakurao Gin Original contains 9 botanicals sourced entirely from Hiroshima:
- Navel orange
- Sweet summer orange
- Green tea
- Aka Shiso
Noticing anything missing from this list? Right, there's no juniper. This is sacrilege in some parts of the world; I don't think you would be allowed to label this as a "gin" in the US and UK. But not here in Japan. And what does it actually taste like?
Nose: Well that was bullshit. Sakurao Distillery didn't list juniper as a botanical, but it's obviously here. Perhaps they just didn't want to admit that they're importing juniper for the Original? That citrus also comes through strongly, particularly the yuzu and oranges. After a solid 30 seconds or so I finally got a hint of green tea too.
Palate: Slap a slice of fresh ginger on an orange, bite down, and you'll be close to the start here. The hinoki lies in wait in the middle after quite a bit of sloshing around. Towards the end the shisho and green tea emerges.
Finish: The ginger spiciness sticks with you alongside the juniper for a crisp ending.
In a gin & tonic, while certainly not dry, those orange/citrus notes play very nicely and smooth with the herbal blend of the tonic. I used Japanese golden limes from Wakayama prefecture's Kannonyama and Fever Tree. A very solid gin, perfectly nice and easy when enjoyed straight or in a G&T. Color me impressed.
Sakurao Gin Limited
And then we have the premium option. This one of the most expensive Japanese craft gin we've seen so far, at 5500 yen before tax. It also features the most botanicals in a Japanese craft gin. In addition to the 9 listed botanicals in Sakurao Gin Original, it adds the following, again entirely sourced within Hiroshima:
- Cherry blossom
- Japanese juniper berry
- Japanese spicebush
- Japanese pepper leaf
- Juniper berry leaf
- Ao shiso
This has to be one of the most interesting botanical baskets I've seen so far. Cherry blossom, sure, we've had that in Suntory's Roku. But Japanese juniper? That's rare! Other Japanese craft gins are importing juniper. And when was the last time you walked into a botanical garden and they have... oysters? Are they boiled, fried, or raw??? What's a spicebush? I have more questions than answers here. Wasabi too! Needless to say, there's a lot going on.
Nose: Orange citrus, pepper, hinoki, and a slight hint of cherry blossom towards the end.
Palate: There's plenty of depth here. We open up with a peppery brine that's showing signs of a citrus, but that's nearly covered by the juniper and wasabi. In the middle and end we get plenty of ginger too! I couldn't find the cherry blossom.
Finish: Afterwards there's the shiso, and that juniper really sticks around. That eventually yields to the yuzu and other citrus.
Let's put this in a gin & tonic too. On the nose we get a hint of brine and pepper leaf. In the middle we don't find as much citrus as the Original, but there is certainly more dryness coming out of that Japanese juniper. The finish however is much longer -- this is how a gin & tonic should be lingering!
As you can see. I ended up finding the Original more to my liking. But if you're out for an adventure and a more complex gin, definitely try the Limited. Chugoku Jozo has come out swinging on the Japanese gin scene!
Whiskey Richard is the founder of nomunication.jp, and has been saying he has lived in Japan for ten years for the past four years. He enjoys drinking basically anything except straight-up Campari.