Gin review: Roku & Etsu Japanese gins.
The gin world divides itself more or less into two styles which, very approximately, are: a) London Dry gin in which juniper is the main flavour and b) New World/New Western gin in which it isn’t – or is at least more restrained. The latter are often more citrus forward in flavour which is fine but it’s the name that troubles me as many gins in this style have little to do with the “New World/West”. Today’s review is a case in point as we examine two very interesting Japanese gins in the lesserly junipered style. At first glance it seems these two gins have a great deal in common but then it get interesting – so let’s get to it!
I’ve been enjoying Roku for some time now so it’s not new to me as is normally the case in my reviews. However it seemed sensible to review it alongside Etsu as they appear to have much in common. Produced by Suntory, a large Japanese producer better known for their whiskey, Roku is a widely available gin due to the owner’s expansive distribution network. I like the hexagonal bottle with the images of the botanicals and names in kanji raised from the glass – which also helps give the bottle some grip. It’s really quite elegant for such a mass produced product. The plastic screw top provides a good solid seal but I feel lets the perception down a touch. I’d rather have that than a poorly fitted wood stopper though. The label is simple but classy with the name written in a brushstroke style that fits its heritage very well. There is some information on the botanicals – of which I always approve – on the back label so we know that six Japanese ingredients are used (sakura flower, yuzu peel, sencha tea, sansho pepper, sakura leaf and gyokuru tea) in addition to any “traditional” ones. Indeed the name Roku is the Japanese word for 6 in reference to those botanicals. We also see that the gin is bottled (at least in the European market) at a sensible 43%. On the nose Roku gin is fresh and citrusy with a definite whiff of juniper. Tasted with just a little water to open it up Roku delivers a nicely balanced complex flavour. The floral and citrus elements seems spread out before you to taste individually and your attention seems to bounce about between them. At the same time it is soft and subtle with no one flavour too dominant and then has a pleasantly long lingering finish without any overly bitter notes. This is a nicely made gin with some real attention to detail. I particularly enjoy it in a gin and tonic with a relatively straightforward tonic such as Schweppes but find it a little too subtle to shine in most cocktails but then there are plenty of other gins we can use for that. As a mid-priced gin (€28-30 here but often on sale for less) I find it a valuable addition to my gin shelf and score it a respectable:
As far as I can tell Etsu – which means “pleasure” – is a relative newcomer to the fabulous world of gin. While being Japanese, having some common botanicals, 43% alcohol and having a name with four letters ending in “u”, I was expecting something fairly similar to Roku but it turns out I was in for a surprise. But first: Etsu comes in a squat cylindrical bottle which at first glance looks like one of those 500ml bottles yet due to its width is in fact a full 700ml. The closure is a beautiful cobalt blue synthetic stopper with a wooden top which has a gold “coin” sunk into it (not very visible in the photo: my bad). Likewise the label looks pretty classy in the same striking blue tone with some gold highlights. While Roku is made by the gigantic Suntory company it appears that Etsu is a much smaller affair made on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and imported into Europe by the relatively new and small BBC Wines & Spirits in France so it is certainly trickier to find than Roku. I sniffed quite a bit more juniper than I expected for a Japanese gin but it was when I tasted it that I was really surprised. The botanicals – again fairly traditional but including bitter green orange peel, sansho, yuzu and licorice – gel into one lovely united front on your palate combining seamlessly into a wonderful pepperiness that reminds me a little of a high quality tequila. And that pepper element seemingly contains the floral and citric notes in a kind of zen-like one-ness as if the flavours are somehow bonded together. It’s not subtle and nuanced like Roku but the polar opposite: concentrated vs diffuse, punchy vs smooth. It takes quite some skill – and the practiced use of flavour fixatives like angelica and orris root – to pull this stunt off. While it makes a great, if unsubtle, gin and tonic it also plays well in cocktails with the peppery edge coming though nicely in a Gimlet or Southside. While a little deeper into the higher-middle price range (around here €32-35) it’s a gin well worth seeking out especially for those who enjoy a very good tequila. I love it: