Nihon-gin #2: Juju

So, here’s a challenging one: Juju Japanese Craft Gin.

Here’s the thing about gin: Basically, any clear liquor base can be turned into gin if you add juniper to it. Usually, distillers go with neutral grain spirits, aka vodka, but there are some more adventurous options out there. Rye-based gin is kind of like gin meets moonshine; G’Vine uses grapes (so, grappa, basically) as its base; and so forth.

Well, the distillers at Kagoshima decided to go all-in on creating a distinctly Japanese gin by crafting one around a shochu base—specifically, a rice-based shochu. Japan collectively takes tremendous pride in its locally grown rice (to the point that you can have some very strange conversations about rice, e.g. how shocking it can be when foreigners are able to digest Japanese rice), so making a gin around a rice liquor is definitely a case of going all-in on that home-grown quality. The result tastes totally unique among gins, in a way that demands being treated almost like something else entirely.

Although shochu is often described as being “practically flavorless, like vodka,” that’s a lie, and the lie shows through in Juju gin. My first impression of this gin was overwhelmingly of straight shochu—probably because, at 38 ABV, it’s bottled a lot stronger than most basic shochu. It wasn’t until my second tasting (watered down somewhat with ice) that the other flavors came through more clearly: Juniper and yuzu, mainly. Thanks to its use of the latter, which at this point has become a standard Japanese gin botanical, Juju tastes somewhat like you’d imagine Ki No Bi or Suntory Roku tasting if you mixed them with shochu. It’s growing on me, but on the whole I’d probably rather just have straight gin or straight shochu.

As with other gins that skip the neutral spirit base approach, Juju doesn’t really work in standard gin cocktails, at least not so far as I’ve tried. The shochu doesn’t match well with the flavors that normally complement gin—for example, you definitely don’t want to mix it with tonic. Soda, on the other hand, might work pretty nicely. I could see treating this as, basically, a juniper-flavored Chu-Hi or something by serving it over ice with a liberal dose of soda.

It’s definitely different, and definitely tastes like a very liberal Japanese interpretation of gin. I’m just undecided as to whether or not that’s as good an idea as the distillers seem to think.