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Diving Deeper into Roku Gin: Taste Testing Its Sakura and Yuzu Distillates

When its comes to Suntory's seemingly endless inventory of various spirit brands, one could argue that Roku Gin still often stands in the shadows of its three older, more high-profile siblings: Yamazaki, Hibiki and Hakushu. While Roku Gin is no doubt already a mainstay in many home bar carts today, some of the craftsmanship that goes behind each bottle tends to get overlooked. In this article, join me as I attend a Roku Gin masterclass, bringing you a closer look into the ingredients, the process, and the distillates that go behind making Roku Gin.

Gin distillation has traditionally been the domain of the British, with even big Japanese spirits conglomerates like Suntory being relative newcomers to the scene. And this is surely understandable. For a long time now, seemingly insatiable demand for its whiskies was plenty enough to have kept Suntory sufficiently busy. Plus, gin took a while to forge a place in the Japanese consumer’s palate - with sake, shochu or whisky dominating as the key drink of choice. 

Beginning in the early 2010s, however, the landscape for gin appreciation in Japan and the broader region in Asia started to evolve. Demand for gin – offering refreshing flavours and easy sipping - started rising exponentially on this side of the world, also driven in part by a growing crop of new Asian gin producers who pulled no punches when it comes to innovating on the gin production process. Among the fray was Suntory, who in 2017 debuted their very own Roku Gin.

Roku: The Japanese Whisky Maker’s Gin

 

(Image source: Suntory)

You’d likely have spotted the distinctive hexagonal bottle of Roku Gin sitting pretty in the alcohol aisle or on the shelf of a bar before. In the short six years since it was launched, Suntory’s brand of gin has become somewhat of a staple for a classic after-work G&T today.

Some of Roku’s quick rise to ubiquity can be attributed to Suntory’s well-endowed marketing budget and widespread distribution network – an undeniable perk of being part of a big spirits conglomerate that allowed Roku Gin to penetrate the Asian market faster than many of the other smaller-batch craft gin distilleries that mushroomed up in Japan around the same time.

 

Suntory's brand portfolio. With a family line-up like this, it's certainly not easy to stand out from one's siblings. (Image source: Suntory)

 

That said, due to its association with Suntory’s large-scale operations, Roku Gin is typically left out of popular classifications of what constitutes a truly “craft” gin, especially when compared to a host of small-batch dedicated gin distilleries that were also emerging in Japan around the same time.

On many global gin review databases today, Roku Gin is still often referred to as “the Japanese whisky maker's gin", as opposed to being a product of a Japanese gin-maker in and of itself. And fair enough... Despite its popularity, it would not be inaccurate to say that Roku Gin largely remains in the shadow of its much higher-profile older siblings – the Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki triplets.

 

A Roku Gin Tasting Masterclass at The Last Word, hosted by Suntory SEA Brand Ambassador Andrew Pang (Find him on IG: @andrew_yamazaki100)

Admittedly, while I do often keep a bottle or two of Roku gin on standby at home, I’ve not seriously looked into the production and the ingredients that go into the gin. So when I learnt that Suntory SEA Brand Ambassador Andrew Pang would be hosting a Roku Gin masterclass in Singapore, I immediately bought tickets.

I was also particularly enticed to come for this masterclass because participants would get a rare chance to taste test two very special distillates that make up the final Roku Gin blend: the Sakura Distillate and the Yuzu Distillate. Both of these distillates are not available commercially, so you can imagine my excitement.

Is Roku Gin the underappreciated child of Suntory that deserves more recognition for its craftsmanship? Follow along, and you be the judge.

The Japanese Concept of ‘Shun’ (駿): How Roku Gin Is Made

Preparing the sakura flowers for distillation. (Image source: Suntory)

Upon arrival at The Last Word bar, we meet the host of today's masterclass, Andrew Pang. Andrew Pang is the Southeast Asia Brand Ambassador for Suntory, in charge of consumer education for brands like Roku Gin, and a frequent guest bartender at some of Asia's best bars.

Once everyone is settled in at The Last Word bar, Andrew kicks off the session with an exploration of a quintessential Japanese concept – the notion of shun (駿). Shun refers to the Japanese ideal that all food and drink should be enjoyed in their proper season. It is the exact moment when an ingredient is at the peak of its flavors and freshness – in other words, when it is closest to perfection. 

Shun is embodied through all the various steps of Roku Gin’s production, from the selection to the harvesting to the distillation of the botanicals. Andrew explains that Roku contains six Japanese botanicals, each carefully selected to represent the best of what each season in Japan has to offer.

  • For spring 🌷: Sakura Flower, Sakura Leaf
  • For summer ☀️: Sencha Tea, Gyokuro Tea
  • For autumn 🍂: Sansho Pepper
  • For winter ❄️: Yuzu Peel

This is also why this gin is named after “Roku”, meaning “six” in Japanese, and why the Roku Gin bottle in made in a hexagonal shape, with each point representing each botanicals.

An abidance to the concept of shun also means that all six chosen Japanese botanicals in Roku Gin are harvested separately, during their respective seasons in order to be captured in its ideal moment.

While shun as a concept sounds romantic, I’m sure the added operational complexities it invites to the gin-making process is decidedly less so. Painstaking timing and detail is essential here. For example, every year, Suntory has only a limited time window to harvest Sakura flowers when it’s at full bloom during the Spring. A while later, as summer approaches, the distillery must double back to snag the green Sakura leaves as they start to emerge.

Andrew passes around six glass containers of each botanical sample, allowing us to smell and feel the ingredients for ourselves. I linger a bit longer than socially acceptable when assessing the one containing sansho peppers – which were wonderfully aromatic and complex in a way that prompts repeated whiffs. Andrew notices me hogging the sample, and explains knowingly that Suntory harvests these sansho peppers while it’s still green, allowing it to lock in some of its best flavours. Hence, why it smells citrusy and bright, rather than being one-dimensionally peppery or spicy as one might expect. 

The concept of shun also informs the way that distillation happens. Roku Gin is made at the Liquor Atelier at Osaka Distillery, which houses four different types of pot stills. Each of the botanicals are separately distilled before being blended back together to form the final product. The separate distillation allows different distillation methods to be applied to different botanicals in order to bring out the best flavors. For example, the Sakura flower is vacuum distilled in a stainless-steel pot still to preserve its freshness and delicacy. Meanwhile, the stronger-bodied yuzu Is distilled in a copper still, resulting in deeper citrus flavours.

The Fun Part: The Tasting Begins!

Having learnt more about the behind the scenes work that goes behind Roku Gin, my fellow participants and I start eyeing our glasses in anticipation. Perhaps sensing everyone’s excitement, Andrew promptly declares it’s time for us to try the distillates. The fun begins!

For this masterclass, we’re given the chance to try a sample of both the Sakura distillate and the Yuzu distillate, two of the star flavours that hold dominance in the final Roku gin blend. My tasting notes for each are as follows:

Roku Sakura Distillate – Tasting Notes

Rife with delicate, floral notes of cherry blossoms and lilac, with a faint but delightful sweetness of ripe sour plums in the back drop. I can’t help but be reminded of mochi! That said, this floral sweetness is also counterbalanced by a surprising earthiness, with notes of umami and herbs. Slightly thick and creamy in texture, it coats the tongue nicely on the palette, and had a medium finish. I could see myself downing this with some sparkling water or lemonade, alongside sliced ripe plums.

Core notes: Floral, Earthy, Herbal

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Roku Yuzu Distillate – Tasting Notes

Bright, citrusy and refreshing. The yuzu peel flavor here is dominant, combining the best of mandarin orange and limes in one pristine note. Yet this distillate doesn’t become one-dimensional, and I taste added complexity imparted by a gentle, prickly spiciness on the back palette. Notes of cinnamon, fennel and cloves come to mind - likely imparted by the sansho peppers.
Core notes: Citrus, Spice

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After tasting the distillates, we are then allowed to try the final blend of Roku Gin as it was intended to be enjoyed. This is the chance to find out if the end product is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Roku Gin – Tasting Notes

Nosing this gin, the aroma starts off floral and sweet. I get notes of Sakura and candied mandarin peels, with a very faint note of cinnamon and star anise. Upon sipping, there’s an immediate note of citrus on the palette. Very quickly though, a thicker earthiness and herbaceousness kicks, rounding out the palate with notes of umami, tannic green tea, and some slight bitterness. The finish is medium. The deep herbal note lingers, but is joined by faint pepper and a tinge of baking spices – cinnamon, star anise and cumin come to fore.

My Rating

🌷☀️🍂❄️

Overall, this is a pretty complex, multi-layered gin that gives you something to think about. In the final blend, you get both the core floral and herbal notes of the Sakura distillate as well as the core citrus and spice of the Yuzu distillate. The beauty in the blending is revealed in the way the various botanicals seem to dutifully take their time to show themselves in stages, never clashing with one another.

 

Serving Suggestion

To end off the masterclass, we’re also invited to create our own Roku Gin and Tonic – customised according to our ideal gin-to-tonic ratios. For garnishes, Andrew recommends using either freshly cut basil leaves or freshly cut ginger slices. Basil leaves helps to dials up the slight herbaceous undertones in the gin, amping up a refreshing menthol aftertaste. Alternatively, ginger may be the preferred garnish of choice for those who enjoy their spice, adding a subtle accent of prickliness that gave the G&T extra character. 

My Take

There's often debate in the gin industry as to what constitutes a truly "craft" gin. Broadly speaking, there's an idea that craft gin is gin that is usually made (a) in small batches with an emphasis on process; (b) with locally sourced ingredients with an emphasis on provenance; and (c) by independent, small businesses.

Of course, under this definition, criteria (a) and (c) would surely exclude Roku Gin from consideration. That said, I do feel that the common perspective of "craft" as based on the limits of a distillery's production capacity may be a tad bit reductive. Plus, it should also be said that not all good gins are necessarily craft gins, just as not all craft gins are necessarily good gins. 

Instead, what I look for in a gin is a sense of intention and research, and a focus on quality ingredients. To that end, I do think Roku Gin checks those boxes. There's an undeniable level of dedication and craftsmanship that goes into its making - from the meticulous thought and research that went into the selection of the Japanese botanicals, to timing of the harvest and distillation of said fickle seasonal botanicals, to the laborious process of separate distillation and blending.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that all this effort does ultimately translate into a gin that tastes superb.

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Missed the Roku Gin Masterclass, But Want to Learn More?

The good news is that this year, Suntory will be celebrating it's 100th year anniversary. To commemorate this milestone, Suntory SEA Brand Ambassador Andrew Pang hinted that the brand will be organising a series of exclusive Roku Gin events.

To get the latest on upcoming Roku Gin events, masterclasses or tastings, follow Andrew on IG at @andrew_yamazaki100!

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@lotusroot518