Spirits & Liqueurs Gin

What’s Behind the Recent Wave of Gins from Asia?

And is it time for a “New Eastern” gin designation?

Blending botanicals for a gin from Song Cai
Blending botanicals for a gin from Song Cai Image:

Song Cai

Gin producers around the world have long flavored the spirit with spices and other botanicals sourced from Asia. Today, a growing number of Asia-based distilleries are making gin that spotlights indigenous botanicals, using them to reflect a sense of place.

Traditionally, gins spotlighting flavors beyond juniper are termed “New Western”-style gins (as opposed to juniper-focused London Dry). This boomlet of gin featuring Asia’s flavors begs the question: Is it time for a “New Eastern” gin designation?

We turned to the pros for insight into what’s driving the latest wave of Asia-made gins, including why more have landed U.S. in recent months. In brief, part of the groundswell is due to local pride and part to the vision of Asia distillers—particularly craft distillers—who are trying to find new ways to express regional flavors. But of course, there’s much more to the story.  

Booming Bar Culture in Asia Helped Stoke Demand for Gin

“Cocktails and mixology in general have really taken off in Asia,” says Daniel Nguyen, the founder of Vietnam’s Song Cai Distillery, which debuted a pair of brisk, expressive gins with “hyperlocal” botanicals, including pomelo, ylang-ylang, cassia, and mangosteen, in 2018 before launching in the U.S. in September 2021. “Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan have really broken through in terms of finding their own voice,” he says, in turn providing inspiration to other parts of Asia.

Further, that booming cocktail movement helped spur interest in gin and refreshing gin-based drinks—a particularly natural choice in hot and humid regions, Nguyen notes.

It’s an Outgrowth of Embracing and Celebrating Local Heritage

“I think that because most of us in Asia were colonized for a very long time, we always thought that what was ‘foreign’ or ‘imported’ was always better, and in a way, thought that our culture, food, drinks, and ingredients were inferior,” posits Cheryl Tiu, the co-founder of Philippines-based Proclamation Gin.

“Fast-forward to the last few years, there has been a surge of pride in being who we are and embracing our heritage—in the Philippines, we call it ‘Pinoy Pride,’” says Tiu. The younger generation, in particular, is excited to showcase the country through its products, including gin, she says. 

Proclamation, for example, has floral notes thanks to the inclusion of sampaguita, a native species of jasmine, and an almost cocoa-like undercurrent from toasted sticky rice. (The bottling launched in the Philippines in January 2021; the brand is still looking for a distributor for U.S. sales.)

“Curious” American Consumers Are a Keen Market

Meanwhile, these Asia-made gins are finding a strong export market in the U.S.

“Most of our success with Jaisalmer gin has been a result of an ever-more-educated consumer base looking to experiment with spirits originating from outside the expected confines,” says Sanjeev Banga, the president of international business at Radico Khaitan, which makes Jaisalmer Indian Craft Gin, which launched in the U.S. in 2018 (and in India in 2019). The gin gets its spicy, earthy tones from Darjeeling green tea, vetiver (a type of fragrant grass), lemongrass, coriander, and cubeb pepper.

“The U.S. market specifically tends to welcome innovation,” says Banga, part of an ongoing trend of “cross-cultural curiosity” among gin lovers.

Nguyen, too, describes the U.S. as a welcoming market for gins that stray beyond the usual comfort zone. 

“The U.S. consumer is often willing to try newer things,” says Nguyen. “There’s a thirst to learn more, a curiosity, a willingness to dive deeper into the subject matter. They are inquisitive and interested in learning the backstory of how things are made.”

Relaxed Regulations in the U.S. Have Encouraged Imports

It also hasn’t hurt that at the end of 2020, the U.S. government changed regulations to allow 700-mL bottles to be imported for sale for the first time, in addition to the standard 750-mL size. While that seems like a small change, it removed a substantial stumbling block for many non-U.S. producers seeking to sell here. 

“When we were asked to pick which bottle size we wanted, it was everywhere else in the world (700 mL) or just the U.S. (750 mL),” says Tiu. “We had chosen the former.” 

Looking Ahead: Expect More Asia Terroir in a Bottle

Most likely, this is just the beginning of a groundswell of gins that showcase Asia’s botanicals, as trend forecasts suggest mainstream consumers are embracing Asian flavors. (The National Restaurant Association lists Southeast Asian cuisine as the “top region for influencing menus in 2022,” while Tastewise heralds India’s regional dishes as gaining attention from American consumers.)

This also gives producers an opportunity to educate consumers about the countries and regions where these flavors originate. Just as Asia is not a uniform monolith, the diversity of flavor profiles—think the delicacy of Japan’s yuzu and cherry-blossom gins compared to the vibrant, peppery bite of a Vietnam counterpart—can generate welcome discussion. “I’m told that a number of US importers and distributors are looking for more ‘unique’ gins, gins that tell a story,” says Tiu.

Yet, Asia’s gin producers are ready for this moment. Observes Nguyen: “To have Asia showcase the breadth, the cornucopia out here—it’s been a long time in the making with craft spirits.”