‘It’s a way to keep the lights on’: why Japan’s traditional distilleries are producing gin, rum and brandy in new era of craft spirit making
Japanese distilleries specialising in centuries-old drinks like shochu, awamori and umeshu are adding craft spirits like gin and eau de vie to their repertoireIt’s a way for distilleries to keep running and provides a gateway to their more traditional tipples, experts says. Newer distilleries are joining the frayFood and DrinksJoyce YipPublished: 12:38pm, 18 Sep, 2023Why you can trust SCMP
Almost two decades ago, bookstore owner Hiroshi Eguchi went for a haircut and – as is common with hairdressers in Japan – was served a gin.
He was so enamoured by the floral concoction that he sold up and moved his family of four to southern Germany to work under the tutelage of Christoph Keller, the master distiller of Monkey 47 gin.
In 2018, the Eguchi returned to Japan – now with a cat and a dog – and took over a derelict municipal garden in Otaki, Chiba prefecture, which had been home to two greenhouses and 500 varieties of botanicals since 1987.
Since then, Eguchi’s Mitosaya Botanical Distillery has been making tea, jam and eau de vie – or unaged fruit brandy. These are so popular and produced in such small batches that “we’re lucky to even get a glimpse”, says Christopher Pellegrini, author of The Shochu Handbook (2014) and host of the podcast Japan Distilled.
Stories such as Mitosaya’s, he says, are rare in the country’s 20th century spirits renaissance: most craft, non-traditional Japanese spirits such as gin, absinthe, eau de vie or what he predicts as the next big thing – rum – are coming from the same stills that make century-old tipples such as shochu, awamori and umeshu. Japanese whisky’s success, combined with a global appetite for discovery, seasonality and authenticity, has fuelled an insatiable demand for the country’s spirits.
Riding on their coattails are ancient distilleries hoping to tap into new demographics, or bold souls such as Eguchi, who just wants to, in his words, “deliver nature via spirits”.