“WE WANTED TO ADD A DISTINCTIVE JAPANESE ACCENT SO WE’VE CREATED THAT ACCENT THROUGH THE USE OF LOCAL BOTANICALS”
The Kyoto Distillery, which makes Ki No Bi, is located in a quiet industrial area of southern Kyoto, surrounded by nondescript buildings. Croll, who lives in Kyoto, visits the distillery several times a week, while Miller, who's based in UK, visits once or twice a year.
What did locals think about a gin distillery being set up on their doorstep? “I think people were very surprised," says Croll, "because gin hasn’t been a big thing in Japan. If you go to a cocktail bar, it’s there, but it’s always just been like a workhorse for bartenders. To actually see it happening in Kyoto, which is a very traditional, oldfashioned city with a long history, it was surprising, but I must say that the support we have had has been incredible – from the city government, the mayor and local companies that have been in business for 15 generations. We’ve been really welcomed, and that was important to us because we wanted to be a genuine Kyoto product and part of the environment. We didn’t want to just slap the Kyoto name on the bottle and then sell it overseas.”
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Croll and Miller must be feeling considerably chuffed. A year after Ki No Bi launched, Suntory and Nikka came out with their own made-in-Japan gins. Reflecting on the successful reception in Japan and overseas, Miller says “it was almost as if people were waiting for it but they didn’t know they were waiting for it. The Japanese are great supporters of their own products – you only need to look at Venture Whisky by Ichiro Akuto. His was the first true craft distillery in Japan. Before he started it was just the big guys churning out lots and lots of products. He really changed things and now his bottles sell out instantaneously.
“When we launched, a lot of people who weren’t traditional gin drinkers were buying it to try. They’d say, ‘Oh I really like this, it’s very approachable,’ and they’d find their own ways to drink it.”
This last statement speaks to the greatest appeal of gin – its versatility. More characterful than vodka and less overpowering than whisky, gin makes a suitable base for cocktails and is found in some of the world’s greatest mixes, including the Singapore Sling. Miller, however, likes his Ki No Bi straight from the freezer into a martini glass, “almost as naked as it could be”. Croll prefers the classic martini while his wife, who is Japanese, enjoys it with cold water, a combination known in Japan as mizuwari. “Gin is so accessible, always,” quips Miller.
The arena of premium gins appears to be reaching saturation point, but the duo are confident they've laid a solid foundation for Ki No Bi. “I think there’s going to be a relatively big shake-out in gin, because there are too many of them,” says Miller. “To have a chance of success, you need several things. I think you need to have an exceptional liquid, a great story and your own production – and we have that. There are many gin brands out there that are being made by third parties, so they’re just brands, not crafted spirits. What The Kyoto Distillery is all about is this Japanese concept of kaizen – small incremental improvements, always striving for the best.”
KI NO BI MEANS “THE BEAUTY OF THE SEASONS”