Billed as a British gin with a Japanese heart, Kokoro is a newly launched gin which is flavoured with exotic sansho berries. Last week, the 5pm Dining blog went along to Glasgow’s Nippon Kitchen to find out more.
Kokoro co-founder James Nicol explained how it all started with his Uncle Nic. Or Clive William Nicol to give him his Sunday name.
Born in Wales, Uncle Nic has lived in the Nagano Prefecture of Japan for decades.
He sounds a remarkable man. Albeit one whose unconventional career may have raised a few eyebrows among his family. Over the years, he has been a professional wrestler, karate black belt, actor, author and advertising model.
As well as exploring the Arctic, Uncle Nic has lived with the Inuit; been a TV presenter and a cook book writer.
He is also an ecologist. He once founded a national park in Ethiopia.
Kokoro Gin: sansho from the shadow of the Black Dragon mountain
For the last thirty years, he has been buying up previously neglected woodlands in the shadow of the Black Dragon mountain in Nagano.
He gifted the land to the Japanese people in 2002. It is now a thriving natural habitat for all manner of flora and fauna, including many endangered species.
It is also home to lots of sansho shrubs. The Japanese have used sansho berries as a food seasoning for thousands of years.
We tried some fresh, green sansho berries at Nippon Kitchen.
They have a super intense peppery and citrus flavour. Eat them straight and a pleasant, numbing heat develops in the mouth. If you can imagine a citrus-flavoured chilli crunched up with black pepper then you are in the same ballpark.
Uncle Nic introduced James Nicol to sansho when he visited in 2014. While walking in the forest, they ate a few berries off the bush.
James describes it as being ‘an intense explosion of flavour, almost like an electric current over the tongue’.
It was a light bulb moment for James. He went home with some sansho berries; bought a small still and started making sansho-flavoured gin in his kitchen.
Fast forward to today and Kokoro has moved from the kitchen to commercial production.
Kokoro Gin: lively zing
Thames Distillers in London make the gin using a special mix of botanicals: juniper, coriander, angelica, sweet orange, almond, liquorice, savory, lemon peel and, of course, sansho berries.
The berries are harvested at the start of the season in Japan. Then they are flash frozen and flown to the UK in dry ice.
The sansho flavour works in balance with the other botanicals but their lively zing is very much at the heart of the 42% ABV gin.
Which is why it is called Kokoro. Kokoro means ‘heart’. Not the beating, flesh and blood organ but rather the soul and essence of something.
Press releases for new gin brands arrive in our inbox every day but, in an era when provenance is paramount, Kokoro has an unusually compelling back story.
We tried it in several different cocktails and can particularly recommend it in an Inoshishi. That’s Japanese for wild boar.
It’s a spin on a Negroni that mixes Kokoro, Aperol, Campari, Honjozo sake and plum shrub.
Refreshing G ‘n’ T
If you are all out of plum shrub, then a Kokoro G ‘n’ T is very refreshing. James recommends that you use a light tonic, slice of lemon and a large sliver of fresh ginger to enhance the spirit’s lively freshness.