Best known internationally for its single malt whisky, Japanese spirits giant Suntory has launched a craft gin.
But before you accuse the Yamazaki distiller of bandwagon jumping, consider that it has actually been in the gin business for generations.
Suntory entered the category with the launch of Hermes Dry Gin in 1936. That product was eventually discontinued in 1980, but the company has had gin on the market continuously, in one form or another, ever since.
"In this regard our company has over 80 years of gin making history," says Suntory master distiller Kazuyuki Torii.
Living the dream
None of the pre-existing Suntory gins have ever been sold outside of Japan. But Torii says it was always it was the dream of Suntory's late founder, Shinjiro Torii, that gin produced in Japan would one day be loved all over the world.
Suntory hopes to finally fulfil its founder's ambitions with the launch of Roku Gin, available in Australia from July 16.
Gathering at the source
Earlier this year, the distiller assembled an international group of journalists in Osaka, Japan for a preview of the product.
The setting was Suntory's oldest production base, dubbed simply 'Osaka Plant', but the gin unveiled was significantly more elaborate.
According to Suntory, Roku (meaning 'six') has been crafted by subtle Japanese artisanship that artfully balances six unique Japanese botanicals to create a perfectly balanced, multi-layered gin.
Bottling the local
The distiller experimented with various different local botanicals before settling on the final six, which coincidentally are harvested at their peak across the four seasons. They are sakura flower and leaf (spring), sencha tea and gyokuro tea (summer), sancho pepper (autumn) and yuzu citrus (winter).
The locally sourced ingredients are underpinned by eight classic gin botanicals, led of course by juniper.
"We wanted this Roku Gin to be within the realm of traditional gin. We wanted our gin to be unique and different from traditional gins, but we didn't want to make it a strange gin," Torii said.
"We considered other popular [Japanese] ingredients such as wasabi or shiso leaves, but we decided not to go with those two."
Deviations and numbers
Continuing the theming of six, the Roku gin is packaged in a beautiful hexagonal bottle, with each of the different botanicals embossed across its six faces.
"We did not try to pick six botanicals to put in Roku Gin at first. We may have called it seven if we ended up with seven botanicals… or 'kyuu' means nine in Japanese. [But] then probably the manufacturing process would have been more difficult for this glass bottle," Torii said wryly.
To make Roku Gin, Suntory had to deviate from the traditional gin making process, in which the botanicals are steeped in the base spirit and distilled altogether at once.
"If we do that process it will be difficult for us to extract the essential oils and aromatics from these Japanese botanicals," Torii explained.
Suntory used the very rare method of vacuum distillation to extract the fragrance from the sakura (cherry blossom) and a copper pot still to draw out the deep flavour of the yuzu.
"We are using fresh ingredients, fresh flowers and leaves. So if we use the traditional process, [the sakura] comes out 'cooked' and the taste profile becomes very different," Torii explained.
"That is the reason why we are using the vacuum distilling process… the distilling temperature can be maintained very low.
"If we distil yuzu by using a traditional pot still, we won't be able to get a unique aroma of yuzu. The outcome becomes very similar to lemon peel.
"Roku is created through blending these different processed liquids into one in the final stage," he said.
Complexity to taste
Torii said the yuzu brings a top note of "tender sweetness" to Roku Gin, which has a smooth and silky texture. It is balanced by the floral and sweet aromas of cherry blossom and sweet tea, with the traditional gin botanicals acting as its base.
"The crisp Japanese sancho pepper brings a little spiciness to the finish. The taste is complex, multi-layered, yet harmonious," he said.
"We believe that this gin represents Japanese authenticity. It's not a simple gin that has a taste profile of yuzu-flavoured gin or tea-flavoured gin."
Printed on traditional Japanese washi paper, Roku's label declares it is 'The Japanese Craft Gin', which Torii said reflects the spirit's small batch production.
"We don't think the word 'craft' is restricted to being used by a small manufacturer," Torii said.
"We call our gin 'craft' because it uses a traditional process based on the Japanese culture.
"We go through a painstaking process to produce our Roku craft gin. Our six botanicals are handpicked at the best season to get the best out of the ingredients."
Suntory's serving suggestion for Roku is a 'Japanese gin and tonic' garnished with some finely sliced ginger, or the more neutral combination of gin and soda to complement Japanese food.
"But we'd like consumers to first familiarise themselves with the profile of Roku gin itself, so for example, by adding ice and seeing how the taste evolves as the ice melts," Torii said.
The writer was a guest of Suntory.