We all have, or at least know, that uncle. The mad one who filled your young head with big ideas, snuck you your first beer, demonstrated how not to flirt with waitresses and how not to stay married. Uncle Liability made your parents uneasy when he swung you around and around the car park roof, but you thought he was the bee’s knees. Now, we’re not saying that Kokoro Gin co-founder James Nicol’s Uncle Nic did all (or any) of the above, but he certainly led him down a very exciting path.
Kokoro Gin’s story begins in the 1960s, when Uncle Nic made his way to Japan and ended up fronting several nature programmes. He made something of a name for himself there, and in the 1980s was paid to front an advert for Nikka Whisky. He used his fee to buy a house up in the Japanese Alps where he – as a nature lover – was dismayed by the state of the surrounding forests, which were dying following years of over planting and mismanagement.
His course of action was to buy as much of the woodland as he could and donate it to the Afan Woodland Trust, which has worked with him over the past three decades to bring the area back to life. The woods are now flourishing, and home to over 50 endangered species.
It was on a visit to Uncle Nic’s Alpine home that James and his brother-in-law and Kokoro Gin co-founder, Barry Darnell, decided to make a Japanese inspired gin. James runs a small consultancy managing projects in the financial services sector and Barry has a design agency, but the duo had been seeking a fun venture that could be run together as a family business for some time.
When they got to Japan, Uncle Nic took them for a walk in the woods – he introduced them to the sansho berries growing in the vicinity (“you pick a few off the bush and eat them and there’s this intense explosion of flavour, almost like an electric current over the tongue” James told us) and encouraged them to drink water from a mountain stream, which took on a whole new glacial freshness when teamed up with the sansho taste.
James returned to the UK and began experimenting with the sansho berries. Though he had no previous distilling experience, he took to the role with gusto, armed with just a self-customised 20-litre stove top still and an A-level in Chemistry.
He soon realised that only fresh berries retain that unique, mountain-air zing, so abandoned any notion of using imported dried berries. Instead, Uncle Nic and a handful of locals from the nearest town, Kurohime, pick them from the Afan Woods. The work is hugely labour intensive, as once the berries have been plucked they need to be transported and cleaned of their stems before being bagged up and frozen.
To create their gin – one that would carry the flavour of the sansho without letting it entirely dominate the taste – the duo turned to Charles Maxwell of Thames Distillers. Charles has been distilling for forty years and has an incredible knowledge of the relationships between botanicals, so – working to James’s notes – he was able to form the recipe after just a couple of trial distillations.
The botanicals forming the final line up are juniper, coriander, angelica, sweet orange, almond, liquorice, savory, lemon peel and sansho berries. The botanicals and spirit are loaded into Thames’ 500-litre John Dore still and left to macerate overnight. Once the still is switched on, the run takes around five hours.
The gin is made to concentrate, so once this comes off the still (at around 80% ABV), it is blended with further neutral spirit before being cut down to its bottling strength of 42%.
Kokoro Gin to taste…
The gin has an interesting flavour journey; the sweet botanicals envelop the tongue, with liquorice making itself very well known. The sansho comes in with a warming spice, but that is quickly side swiped by a candied orange and lemon citrus. Fire dances at the back of the sip, with the sansho coating the mouth in pepper.
That said, those with a spice phobia shouldn’t avoid this gin. Juniper is present throughout the journey and the orange and lemon bring a real lightness. The finish is lasting, though hard to define – none of the botanicals particularly shout, instead a complex and aromatic taste settles in the mouth.
Tonic heightens the citrus, hushing the brine and spice of the sansho and bringing out a hint of lemon. We’d continue playing with that theme when hunting for a G&T garnish, adding in yuzu if accessible and mandarin if not.
Kokoro Gin is packaged in frosted glass, in a tall, wide bottle with Japanese calligraphy (the Hiragana for Kokoro) dominating the front. Keeping to the Japanese theme, the bottle is clean and uncluttered, though a couple of short paragraphs telling the story of Uncle Nic feature on the back of the bottle. Everything is embossed, bar the neck sticker, which features Japanese characters that translate to ‘heart of the forest.’
Barry designed the bottle at his branding agency, Made By Analogue, giving him the rare opportunity to be both a customer and a designer at once. Though they were both new to the distilling side of gin, Barry had some experience with the spirit – he’s worked on Portobello Road’s design and still stands as their brand guardian.
We spoke to James about the budding gin industry in Japan, especially in light of Kyoto Distillery releasing the first Japan-made gin at around the same time as Kokoro’s launch. He explains “Five multinationals command 97% of the gin market in Japan but there are over 600 different distilleries producing shochu. I’m sure there’s an opportunity for a gin with real links back to Japan and with Ki No Bi (Kyoto Distillery’s gin) launching soon we really hope we can be the catalyst for a gin explosion in Japan.”
There are no variants on yet, as the duo are immensely proud of Kokoro Gin and want to focus on the launch – getting it into the world and sharing its story loudly. There will be variants in the future, though, and they’re already swapping ideas at a rate of knots.
Kokoro Gin has a genuinely fantastic tale to tell and a small cast of huge characters behind it. It’s a story about family, about following ideas down the rabbit hole, and about protecting our environment and looking after the world we live in, just like Uncle Nic does. It’s a gin well worth discovering, so grab your mad uncle and share a glass or two.
For more information about Kokoro Gin, visit their website: kokorogin.com
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