Posted by Spirits Kiosk on 1 Mar 2023
This month we’re looking at the amazing array of flavours and spirits that hail from across Asia.
Let us be the first to say that taking on Asia as one entity is a little mad. It’s as diverse as it is massive. Each country has idiosyncratic producers and a regional accent of its own, alongside distinct culinary traditions and flavour influences.
We know this. That’s the joy of it and why we’re taking it on as one. To hop past the singular block generalisations and the tropical tropes and delve into the infinite nature of what can be discovered.
As we explore the theme over the month, we’ll go from Japanese Whisky to Filipino Rum, to Indian Gin and back via ingredients that have inspired others elsewhere in the world to create their own homage to the ‘East’.
For example, we’ll explore how the likes of Italian Vermouth maker Mancino doffs its cap to cherry blossom season, or the way Dangerous Don Mezcal highlights the irony around Mandarin's perception as being a quintessentially Chinese citrus – when it's also huge in Mexico and culturally significant there too.
So many products are inspired by Asia, and influenced by the many flavours that can be found there. Even more are the untold and often unknown legacy of centuries of trading that have brought once exotic goods into the mainstream of faraway lands.
Asian flavours can also be found in famous cocktails, brought to life via garnishes and incorporated in how we all drink at home. We’re here for all of it over March, culminating in a cherry blossom hunt of our own as they bloom later this month.
Let’s get our theme of the month underway by taking an initial broad brush to the region before we get into the specifics over the days ahead…
The established giants: Japanese Whisky & Gin
For most, Japanese Whisky is the first thing they think of when projecting their imagination towards Asian spirits. We’ll be dedicating an entire week to Japanese Whisky and highballs with a focussed blog on it, looking into what makes a great highball, which brands to gravitate to and how to accent it if you wish to augment it further.
Look beyond Japan’s mighty malt export and the big Japanese story of the past 5 years has come in the form of gin.
Ki No Bi paved the way in international waters for others to follow, bringing with them a wave of botanicals that are as tongue twisting to say as they are to taste – shiso, sencha, sancho, miso and more…
When it comes to experiencing a unique take on Japanese flavours through the medium of gin, one of our favourites remains the Ki No Tea. The teas bring a huge depth of flavour and a light sweetness that makes for easy sipping. It’s genuinely a soft, delicate gin with a complex, almost hay-like aroma and a zesty citrus burst. The roasted green tea notes are clear throughout, but even more so on the finish.
Meanwhile another Japanese gin that has caught our attention is 135° East. It combines classic flavours with a unique local twist through the use of mandarin and yuzu. Shiso leaf adds a herbal tang around the juniper, while sansho pepper brings its fragrant spice to the finish.
It’s resolutely a gin, but one that has a strong identity running through both the branding and the flavour journey each drop contains.
The production is interesting too – there are three classic botanicals and five Japanese ones (cedar wood, shiso leaf, chrysanthemum, sansho pepper and yuzu) which are individually distilled under vacuum, then blended. A touch of distilled Sake spirit is also added to bring a soft sweetness.
Not only are the ingredients inventive and speak to the gin’s regionality, but the complex process also shows just how much knowhow there is from the whisky, sake and shochu industries and how that is now being applied to Japanese Gin.
When you look at Japanese Gin with that cross pollination in mind, it makes us wonder about the amount of innovation we have yet to even see from the country.
But more on that in the days to come…
The rising stars - Indian Gin
Cast your eyes towards India and it’s been hard to ignore the volume of noise and excitement coming from their local Gin scene. Now a few years into it, we’re beyond the category’s re-birth and new discovery 'moment', and if you go by the other countries that have had a gin-aisance (such as the UK, South Africa and Australia) this is when it gets really interesting.
One of current big names that are available here is Stranger & Sons, which was founded by hard working trio Sakshi Saigal, Rahul Mehra and Vidur Gupta. They bring a sense of theatre to everything they do and that interplay of narrative, ritual and folklore is clear to see on the label while the flavour profile is equally as complex. Indian bergamot and Gondhoraj lemon add a perfumed citrus hit upfront that is perfectly layered onto of a medley of spice (mace and cassia in particular) that give it a warm backdrop.
The other superstars are Hapusa, who combine turmeric, ginger and cardamom to add some significant botanical depth to their prominent use of Himalayan juniper. Both are fantastic craft gins that show why all eyes are on the region for what they do next, let alone others that follow in their wake.
Beyond tropical tropes and “Eastern” flavours
If you look across Asia, there are fascinating local takes on how to go about making classic vodka - from base material to post distillation filtration.
Take ARC Vodka that’s made in the Philippines. Rather than using its provenance as an excuse to create some weird and wonderful infusion – it goes the other way and filters the spirit through lava rocks from the volcanoes of Taal and Mayon.
The result is a crisp and slightly sweet nose with corn and subtle wheat. To taste, it's fresh with hints of sweet stone fruit and ginger. The finish is soft with the vanilla and grain emerging once more.
Meanwhile Haku Vodka is distilled from Japanese white rice (the word 'haku' even means 'white' in Japanese). The use of rice as a base material leads to a nuanced vodka and with an elegant simplicity. The floral violet and almond notes come through neat. The minerals from the bamboo charcoal filtration add a smooth and mellow character to it too.
Both show how producers can stay true to their respective heritage and showcase their regions through what they use to make the spirits. They are examples of spirits that translate that regionality into liquid without the need for any gimmicks. Just great booze, from amazing distillers in far flung lands.
There you go – a quick look at some of the highlights across Asia ahead of a month-long foray into the region and into the individual producers we stock here.
As always, expect cocktail inspiration and recipe blogs this month - such as Highballs, Pegu Club and the Japanese Slipper - as well as some tantalising discounts on bundles for those wanting to try one for themselves at home.
We’ll also be publishing our Spirits Spotlight videos over Spirits Kiosk social and a whole raft of longer format editorial will be running in parallel over on Spirits Beacon.
Just as those cherry trees are – it’s time for your shelf to bloom with Asia-inspired spirits!