Kokoro Gin: The Heart of the Forest

Art, science, and sustainability

“Looking up, the sunlight glinted and sparkled through the new green leaves, moving, dancing, shimmering…wherever you turned you could hear the chuckle of running water. It seemed to be laughing with joy…”

(C.W Nicol, Afan Story, 2014)

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Famed for its natural beauty, the thriving flora and fauna of Nagano Prefecture’s Afan Wood rely on a fragile ecosystem. Once neglected and overgrown, the peaceful wilderness is now a haven of biodiversity and home to more than fifty endangered species including deer, squirrels, badgers, and foxes. It is also inhabited by more than one hundred species of birds, several snakes, salamanders, newts and rich, thriving flora.

Deep under the canopy of beech and horse chestnuts, the Japanese prickly ash tree bears vibrant green berries known as Sansho. Belonging to the citrus family, the Sansho berry has a robust, peppery flavour and produces a tingling sensation on the tongue. This multisensory experience has been captured and developed by Kokoro Gin creators, James Nicol, and Barry Darnell whose vision for a family-run, environmentally sustainable business began to take shape during a visit to his Uncle Nic’s home in the Afan Wood.

The flourishing wood is a result of various organisms working together to achieve a balance. The woody vegetation, light, water, flora, and fauna – the physical and chemical features of a forest contribute to this.

Uncle Nic

But the heart and soul of the Afan Wood, the ‘mori no tamashi’ in Japanese is almost tangible when you read the works of C.W Nicol. Known as Uncle Nic, he is the man who is responsible for bringing this woodland back to life and planting the seed that would inspire his nephew to create Kokoro Gin.

C. W Nicol was a man of many talents with his heart firmly rooted in nature. Born in Wales in 1940, he dedicated his life to environmental conservation, working as a fisheries technician at Canada Arctic Biological Station, an Environmental Emergency Officer, and a Game Warden at Semien Mountains National Park in Ethiopia.

An accomplished writer, he also published over one hundred books in eight different languages. Nicol first travelled to Japan in 1962, driven by his passion for martial arts. He presented some Japanese nature programs in the 1970s and 80s and due to his popularity, he was paid to appear in an advertisement for Nikka Whisky.

Eager to establish a meaningful connection with the land he had grown to love, Nicol used some of his payment to purchase a house in the Japanese Alps and invested the rest of his earnings into the neglected woodland around him. He spent the next thirty years working to regenerate the forest and in 2002, he donated the land and his own funds to set up the C W Nicol Afan Woodland Trust.

The Sansho Berry

Kokoro Gin co-founders, James Nicol and Barry Darnell tasted a Sansho berry during a walk through the woods with their Uncle Nic in 2014. Describing the sensation as an electric current over the tongue, James was instantly inspired to create a Japanese inspired gin, using the unique and potent, fresh berries. Keen to build a family business, the brothers-in-law began to experiment.

Sansho berries grow wild in the Afan woodland and have been used in Japanese cuisine for three thousand years. Their peppery, citrus tang enhances the flavour of the other ingredients that have been used and are the perfect mainstay for gin. The Japanese use Sansho in ceremonial wine that is used to celebrate each new year and dried berries are often blended to create a spice powder used to season meat.

James realised that dried, imported berries did not inspire the same electricity as their fresh counterparts so Uncle Nic began to pick them with the help of some locals. The berries are picked by hand in May, at the start of the season when they are still fresh and green, cleaned, flash frozen and packed in dry ice to be sent to the UK.

Due to their limited distilling experience, James and Barry enlisted Charles Maxwell of Thames Distillers to help them develop a gin that would allow the berries to retain their bold flavour. Using eight botanicals: juniper, coriander, angelica, sweet orange, almond, liquorice, savory, and lemon peel, Kokoro Gin is a beautiful blend of the traditional London dry style and the powerful Sansho berry.

Kokoro Gin

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Kokoro Gin is made to concentrate which means they use a large quantity of the botanicals with a small amount of liquid before adding a neutral spirit to reach its bottling strength of 42% ABV.

Upon tasting, the botanicals are well balanced with juniper reaching the nose and liquorice a standout. The sansho berry works to provide a lasting, peppery finish amidst a complex blend of flavours. The Kokoro Gin website contains a variety of cocktail recipes you can make yourself, which are particularly helpful given the current restrictions across the world.

James’ ingenuity and entrepreneurial skills are matched by his brother-in-law’s flair for design and branding. Barry designed the frosted glass bottle, adorned with Japanese calligraphy. It is elegant and minimalist; fresh and inviting.

The Hiragana means ‘Kokoro’ which is ‘heart’ in Japanese and the symbols on the neck of the bottle means ‘mori no tamashi’ – as referenced earlier, the soul of the forest.

Kokoro Gin is the product of regeneration and sustainable productivity, thanks to the biodiversity that has been restored to the Afan Wood. In his memoir, Afan Story, C.W Nicol wrote that ‘woodlands are where our hearts belong’ and there is no doubt that his nephew has captured the essence of Afan Wood in Kokoro Gin.

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