《New styles of delicious alcohol from the north》 A drop of aspiration to refresh the region

June 11
Horses amble on the land nibbling fresh grass at the edge of the Shakotan Spirit Botanical Garden, where Chinese juniper (foreground) that grows there emerges after winter. April 20, Shakotan, Shiribeshi subprefecture

The long winter has ended and the sunlight shines on a mountainous district of the town of Shakotan in the Shiribeshi subprefecture. On April 20, two horses look comfortable as they amble on the land, nibbling fresh grass.

 Last May, the gin producing company, Shakotan Spirit (Shakotan) revived abandoned agricultural land at low cost and experimented with cultivating botanical ingredients used to flavor gin. Since 2016, the company had already been renting 3 hectares of abandoned dairy-farming land from the town in order to grow crops.

 Gin is a high-alcohol-content spirit used in cocktails such as gin & tonic and martini. Like the Kyoto Distillery, known for its ‘Japanese-style’ products flavored with high-quality green tea and the like, craft gin made with the region’s abundant botanical resources is currently gaining popularity all around the world.

The production of gin began as a regional revitalization measure on the proposal of a woodcraft designer from Sapporo, who told the town that “good-quality, internationally recognized gin is created in the northernmost part of Scotland, which (like Shakotan) is surrounded by sea where strong winds blow”. Shakotan Spirit CEO Iwai Hirofumi (51) made the decision to start the business because of the advantages of the location, as Chinese juniper – a species related to the juniper berry necessary for the production of gin – grows naturally there.

 The snow melts late in Shakotan and, according to a town official, “good agricultural land is in short supply”. Part of the soil of the abandoned farmland is acidic and clay-like, and the intuition of CEO Iwai – whose main role is that of an agricultural consultant – is that “vegetables would be difficult but perhaps trees and herbs can be cultivated”. Over 80 varieties, including lemon balm and hyssop are already grown and used to flavor the ‘Honoho’ gin that went on sale in June and December of last year. Trial cultivation of juniper berry trees is also being carried out.

 Known for having one of Hokkaido’s leading beaches and for its specialty product of sea urchin, the town of Shakotan has a population of less than 2,000. The town’s mayor Matsui Hideki (73) says “People from outside the town produced the gin and made the residents aware of the merits of Shakotan.” It is hoped that the small distillery will influence future development of the town.

 Crowd funding (CF) for the operation of Shakotan Spirit has resulted in approximately 22 million yen being donated by 336 people, including non-Japanese nationals. The company plans to use part of the money raised from sales of its products this autumn to maintain the beds of seaweed on which sea urchin – the towns specialty product – feed.

 Sixteen years ago, the value of gin (and vodka) exports from Japan was almost zero. In 2019, that figure reached 3.4 billion yen and even in 2020, during the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, the figure was 2 billion. Shakotan Spirit is also ready to begin exporting to Europe, the home of gin.

 In recent years, wineries, sake breweries, whisky distilleries and the like have been opening in regions throughout Hokkaido. “Alcohol brings people to the town and can be the engine that drives the regeneration of a region. What’s more, it allows us to convey ‘SHAKOTAN’ to the world.” CEO Iwai’s aspirations are proof of the infinite potential hidden in each drop of alcohol painstakingly produced in Hokkaido.

Shakotan Spirit’s ‘Honoho’ gin and fresh Shakotan-produced Sakhalin spruce shoots (left) used in the flavoring

 The producers of distinctive alcoholic beverages help to support the stagnating Hokkaido economy during the Coronavirus pandemic and perhaps possess the presence to refresh the region. In this ‘New styles of delicious alcohol from the north’ series, we explore the strengths and unique techniques of Hokkaido-produced alcohol, and its links with food.

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Shakotan Spirit