What inspired to your to create Kokoro Gin (and what is a sansho berry)?
My Uncle Nic, C.W. Nicol is a conservationist and has lived in Japan for most of his life. Since the mid-eighties, he has been buying up neglected woodlands near his home in Kurohime in the Japanese Alps and has dedicated his life to restoring this forest and bringing it back to its natural state. It's a beautiful and inspiring story. In 2002 Uncle Nic established the Afan Woodland Trust and donated the land to the Japanese people.
Nic is still chairman of the trust, I visited his forest back it 2014, and while walking in the woods my Uncle introduced me to the sansho berry, he picked one, and I tried it fresh of the shrub. They have the most incredible flavour; it’s almost electric. There’s lots of citrus with a lovely warming spice, but with a tongue tingling electricity, it’s a natural flavour enhancer as well. Everything about the flavour and the sensation was screaming gin.
How did you get from the idea to the finished product?
When I got back to the UK, I discussed the idea with my brother-in-law Barry Darnell, who owns a design agency and has lots of experience in the on-trade and spirits sector and he was excited by the berries as I was. I immediately bought a small stove top still and began experimenting with some fresh berries from that season and Barry set about crafting the visual direction for the brand.
That very first gin distillation had just juniper and the sansho berries. It tasted great, I knew straight away we were onto something. There were two big problems though, first, bringing a small bag of fresh berries back from Japan was easy but we needed more to launch a gin, and second, sansho is seasonal, and it would be almost a year before we could pick some more.
My Uncle sent me over dried berries and berries preserved in brine to experiment with, but they just didn’t have the same zing as the fresh berries, so we had to wait. A full year later and after an awful lot of paperwork and customs procedures our sansho arrived packed in dry ice having been picked and flash frozen at source. We got to work on finalising the recipe, and after a period of experimenting, we took my recipe to Charles Maxwell at Thames Distillers.
Charles knows his stuff and has a real passion for his work, we worked together to smooth off the rough edges, and after just a couple of trial distillations, we hit on the final recipe. It has everything I wanted and captures the flavour journey of the sansho berries in a way that is still sympathetic to a classic gin style.
What’s the story behind the name?
Kokoro is a Japanese word that translates as 'heart', but it’s not the literal, physical, beating heart, more the centre the very the essence of something. When you think about the forest, the aromas, the sounds, that primal feeling of being where you belong. There’s something almost spiritual about being there surrounded by nature with all its variety. Kokoro describes that feeling and sums up our ethos; there was no other word we could use to name our gin.
What's the distillery like and can you tell us about the distillation process?
We distill at Charles’s facility in London. Kokoro had to be a London Dry; there’s a real art to the process, a single distillation with no additional blending of flavours after production. With London Dry Gin, you need to understand what each botanical brings to the process and finely balance your recipe. For me, that idea of harmony and balance resonates with our forest inspiration.
What's a normal day like for you?
Barry and I both still have day jobs, so we split the workload according to our strengths, Barry takes care of the branding and a lot of the sales activity whereas I have a more operational focus. I’m usually working the books, speaking to suppliers, basically making sure everything runs smoothly, and the taxes get paid on time.
How would you describe Kokoro Gin in 3 words?
Smooth, balanced, refreshing
What makes Kokoro Gin different / why should gin lovers should get their hands on some?
The taste of the sansho berries, their natural zing, plus the flavour enhancing properties results in a well-balanced gin that has a little something extra, something indescribable that’s hard to pin down. It’s like a gentle forest breeze on the back of your neck on a summer’s day in the mountains.
What's your favourite way to drink Kokoro Gin?
Premium tonic, lots of ice and just a twist of lemon.
What are your favourite gins (other than your own of course!)?
I’ve always been a gin drinker and before we had all the wonderful choices we have now Tanqueray Gin was my ‘go to’ drink.
What's next / any exciting plans?
I'm off to Japan next month picking sansho berries which is pretty exciting, and we're developing our gift pack for Christmas which is shaping up to be really special.