The Kampai Samurai interview series brings together experts in Japanese whisky, sake, shochu, beer, gin, and other categories to explore the breadth and depth of Japan's drinking culture. Click here to see other entries in the series.
Alex Davies, Head Distiller at The Kyoto Distillery, has been one of the primary driving forces behind the rapidly growing Japanese craft gin category.
The Kyoto Distillery, founded by industry veterans David Croll and Marcin Miller in 2015, is Japan's first craft gin distillery. The highly successful launch of Ki No Bi in 2016 was followed by an onslaught of new Japanese craft gins: in three short years, Japan went from having zero distilleries making craft gin to having 24.
We spoke with Alex about the explosive growth of the Japanese craft gin and, of course, of Ki No Bi specifically.
You can follow The Kyoto Distillery via the official homepage, Facebook, and Instagram, and you'll also find Alex on Instagram. This year, The Kyoto Distillery has teamed up with spirits writer Dave Broom to release Classic Ki No Bi Cocktails, an EN/JP bilingual collection of cocktails highlighting Ki No Bi's different expressions.
WR: It's been around three years since the debut of Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin. IWSC Trophies, Craft Distillery of the Year... the accolades keep rolling in. So, first of all, congratulations. It's been several years in the making, of course. Have there been any highlights of the experience?
AD: I can hardly believe it has been three years already; time has flown by! There are so many now it's hard to choose.
The opportunity to fully immerse myself in a totally foreign culture in a far away land to study and explore an entirely new set of flavours and scents from ingredients I previously had never heard of has been pretty special. I have been lucky to have had the help and support from an amazing team from day one, special thanks to Mas Onishi (TKD - Technical Consultant) for his guidance and knowledge on my journey thus far.
WR: Let's talk a little bit more about that Japanese gin boom. Japanese whisky may be crying itself to sleep every night, but the number I saw was 600% growth in exports of Japanese gin over 2018. How does it feel to know you and the team are largely responsible for the current Japanese gin boom? Is the category poised to continue growing?
AD: It feels like there are an awful lot of eyes on us, but it is a privilege and a responsibility we are honoured to hold. Before KI NO BI there was no such thing as 'Japanese Gin'. It feels incredible to have been a driving force in the movement that kick started this new category in the spirits world and it is inspiring to see how receptive both Japan and the rest of the world has been towards 'Japanese Gin'. With that in mind, I do not see this trend slowing down at all.
WR: Given Ki No Bi's popularity, I must admit I am a tad concerned about The Kyoto Distillery's capacity to meet that growing demand. Even ignoring the personnel, you are restricted to the once-a-year availability of yuzu from local farms, correct? Could Ki No Bi become the next Ichiro's Malt? Or should I go long on yuzu futures?
AD: True, we do harvest a lot of our ingredients only once a year, but this 'restriction' is also another strength. This is just one of the elements in our process that gives a real authenticity to our brand and helps to build the reputation of our distillery.
We are uncompromising on quality, always. Perhaps this is where the restrictions may lie; we are incredibly fussy when it comes to our botanicals and the people behind them.
With that said, we are constantly on the hunt for new farms domestically to support the growing demand for our Gin. Always looking for people who care as much about their produce as we do. People that we can collaborate with and bring on board to grow as we expand. This, ultimately, will always be a limiting factor in how much gin flows from our stills and we will always only ever be able to hit volumes that are a fraction of some of our larger competitors, but quality does come at a cost and at the end of the day we can sit back proudly (with a martini) knowing that we have made the best gin we possibly can, no compromise.
WR: Can you walk us through what a regular day is like for the team at The Kyoto Distillery? I take it you are all extremely busy, all the time.
AD: I'll let you know when we that happens! We rarely see a ‘regular day,’but ultimately the primary focus of everyone in the team is consistent production. We are a small team so everyone needs to be highly competent in multiple responsibilities. Each day 2-3 people will focus on the day-to-day production procedures such as running the stills, tank management and blending. The remaining distillers will dedicate their time in other areas such as botanical procurement, QC, NPD or will be training in sensory evaluation and brushing up on their theory of distillation.
WR: Kyoto is an immensely popular tourist destination, itself winning several "World's Best" awards over the past years. While I know The Kyoto Distillery does pop-ups and events in the city, are there any plans for anything more permanent, such a visitor center? That's of course assuming there are no plans to open the distillery itself to the public.
AD: Up to now our focus has been on maintaining quality and consistency on the production side and also establishing and cementing relations with the Kyoto community. However the millions of annual visitors to the city are undoubtedly an opportunity and we are actively looking at ways we can give as many people as possible a "KI NO BI experience' during their stay.
WR: We've seen at least one new Ki No Bi expression per year, like 2017's Ki No Bi Sei and 2018's Ki No Tou. Then are the limited editions like Edition K, G, and Ki Noh Bi. And now you have a license to make liqueur as well, allowing even more flexibility. I assume you have plenty more of Japan's great botanicals up your sleeve -- should we expect this pace of new products to continue?
AD: With so many unique botanicals to be found domestically, we are never short on ideas for new products. All I can say for now is that we are thoroughly enjoying ourselves in the NPD department!
WR: While I think a lot of attention has been rightfully paid to the extensive work you and the team put into selecting botanicals, I'm also quite interested in your water source. Since several centuries ago Fushimi has been recognized as having great water quality, so a lot of sake brewers moved to the area to take advantage of it. Today you even have people taking home water from shrines in shopping bags, for example. How does this water quality impact Ki No Bi? At what stage(s) of the manufacturing process is it used?
AD: I'm genuinely really pleased that you've asked this. Water is so often overlooked when producing gin, but given the proportion that it makes up inside a bottle why should it be? The water to us is every bit as important as the spirit and the botanicals. Many distilleries are located in countries or in cities without high quality natural water sources, and so the water used in gin commonly arrives off the city mainline via extreme measures of filtration. Sadly this results in water without any substance and in this instance the only purpose the water serves is as dilution. Dilution of both the strength of the alcohol and of the flavour and character of the final product.
We have chosen to locate the distillery in Kyoto because of the rich history and abundance in high quality ingredients, water included. We are extremely lucky to have neighbours like Tokubee Masuda who is kindly allowing us to take water directly from the well of his brewery, Tsukino Katsura, in Fushimi with well over 350 years of history in Sake production. This water is used to dilute all spirits post distillation and enriches the sweetness, cleanness and texture of our gin.
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.