Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin Review
I thought it was a Star Wars joke, but it’s gin from far, far away.
Review Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin
Made in: Kyoto, Japan by Number One Drinks Company
Method: Custom Built Column Stills
45.7% alcohol/91.4 proof
Botanicals 11: Juniper, Orris root, Hinoki (Japanese cypress), Lemon, Yuzu, Sansho peppers, Kinome (Japanese pepper), Bamboo leaves, green tea, Ginger, Shiso.
Style: Modern Gin
Now I have to admit, even though I can speak a smidgen of Japanese when I saw my first bottle of Ki No Bi, I figured it was a Star Wars gag in terms of the name. Now George Lucas might well have known something I didn’t when he introduced his fandom to the first Jedi, and he may have chosen that name from the Japanese phrase “the beauty of the seasons” which it turns out is what Ki No Bi actually means. Or maybe he didn’t and the creators of this gin (Marcin Miller, David Croll and Noriko Kakuda Croll) threw us a bit of a Star Wars joke in the naming of this gin (which I strongly suspect, and I’ll have to ask them about one day).
But in any case the gin and even the bottles are no joke at all, but a tribute to Kyoto and its history of craftsmanship for over 1000 years. The label design came from a 17th century woodblock which was used to hand print on washi paper, the bottle is made by Sakai Glass, a local company who’ve made bottles since 1906, and the gin inside, well that’s the story we are here to really talk about.
They make this gin by separately distilling each botanical, and blending them with local water which is more famed for its role in top ranked sake’s than for its use in spirits. And the water is just one of the ingredients here that make this gin very much about locality - with most of the botanicals being sourced within Kyoto prefecture*. It uses a number of botanicals local to the area, and not so commonly seen in western gins. And while that is interesting enough the question arises, just what does it taste like?
This is one of those elite sipping gins that really needs nothing more than an ice cube to lend itself to enjoyment. It’s big on taste, with layers of flavors, all tied nicely together. Citrus is certainly dominant here - so call it citrus forward, but the balance with the backend makes it one of the best sipping gins out of Japan - arguably equal to, or surpassing Etsu Gin. Don’t look for a lot of heat here - you just won’t find it.
Scentwise the gin is floral dominated with a nice backnote of citrus, and hints of black tea, and pepper in the rear.
Citrus is the big gun in this gin, crisp and bitter, with notes of yuzu, mandarin orange, and lemon pith artfully blending, before hitting some strong but not overwhelming earthy, herbaceous notes which I assume are from the kinome, tea, and cypress. It’s here where you start to notice the pine resin notes of the juniper, but the more you think about it, the more likely you are to find it as a minor note, underscoring the tinges of bitterness hidden on the front of the gin. What’s nice about this is how the juniper carries through each sip, not necessarily a major note, but in how well it holds the whole gin together, I think this is aided in great part by the notes of tea that complement the juniper very well. It’s after that that you get to the spice notes of black pepper, chinese basil, and just a touch of heat from the ginger.
The gin clings to the palate and tongue, providing a long crisp finish with lingering flavors that tail into a pleasant bitterness.
While this gin doesn’t have that dominant juniper forward profile it provides at least some of the bitterness of juniper via black tea, floral notes from the peppers, and enough spice that I can see some equivalents that match up with London dry. It gave me hope that it would mix well with the right cocktails.
Paired with Fever Trees light tonic, and dressed with a dehydrated slice of lime, I found Ki No Bi to make a good gin and tonic, although I thought the yuzu nature of the gin was the dominating flavor, and the juniper, while clearly present was much more of a background player. It’s perhaps a bit too citrusy for those who love a classic flavor profile, but it’s a worthwhile drink to enjoy - a touch lighter and less bitter than traditional but still lovely.
I love a dry martini - usually the drier the better, so I took the distiller’s suggestion of a 7:1 ratio of Ki No Bi to vermouth rather seriously. That is because the early and vegetal notes in the Ki No Bi definitely soften the gin in a somewhat vermouth-like way and the drink only needed a touch of vermouth at most to make for an excellent martini. Strangely enough, this is the most classical tasting of all the cocktails I tried with this gin. I felt that in the martini I got more juniper than I did in anything else I tasted.
As I was down close to the bottom of the bottle of Ki No Bi, (thanks to a few friends), I had to decide just what cocktail I was going to make with the last few ounces of the gin. In the end I settled on a Gin Basil Smash. As I suspected, the tea notes, and spice added some nice depth and nuance to the drink, and the citrus forward flavor profile blended beautifully. Based on that, I believe that Ki No Bi would be an excellent choice in drinks like a Gimlet, Collins, French 75, Southside, or Last Word. I’m a bit unsure how it would handle drinks like a Negroni, or Corpse Reviver.
Not for traditionalists this is a very modern gin with a strong citrus backbone, and strong herbaceous flavors and middling to low notes of juniper (That said, juniper is definitely the binder for all the flavors in the gin). It’s wonderful served with ice, and works well in almost everything I tried it in. Of all the cocktails I made with it I found it weakest in a gin and tonic, but I suspect with the right tonic this one will soar.
With its unique flavor profile I don’t think this gin will stand up to everything BUT in the hands of a creative mixologist this gin will certainly elevate many drinks.
Rating (Sipping): 95 - An elite sipping gin at its best when served with nothing but ice.
Rating (Mixing) 90 - Good mixing gin which stands on its own in simple cocktails and should stand well in almost anything.
Overall rating: 93 - One of the true top shelf gins to come out of Japan. It’s not quite in the elite stratosphere but it certainly is close.
*A prefecture in Japan is sort of like a state here in the US. It is a local area which has its own government and functions just below the national level.
What you need to know about reviews: All my reviews are my honest opinions based upon my own personal tasting. I am NOT a paid reviewer, and no compensation was given, or expected. I may from time to time choose to do a second review and amend my opinion of a product, should I feel like it and find my review criteria has evolved, or that I’ve found it different at a later date. That said, as I’m unlikely to repurchase anything I thought was less than very good to excellent, it would be by chance or at the request of a distiller who thought I rated them very unfairly - BUT even then, whatever you get will always be my honest opinion.