Taiwan’s Gin Culture Breaks the Mold

Gin enthusiasts have plenty of options thanks to new flavors and taste profiles on offer across Taiwan.

A burgeoning market, creative concoctions, and passionate bartenders are ushering in an era for gin on the island.

Gin enthusiasts were long a niche group in Taiwan, where whisky famously dominates the liquor market. Just a decade ago, they would often be left disappointed, encountering the same three brands on nearly every bar shelf. 

But to the delight of many – including me – bars have begun offering extensive selections of exciting gin brands, and knowledgeable bartenders can easily pick out a suitable bottle based on customer preference. For those who prefer to mix at home, Taiwan’s leading wine and spirits retail chain My9 offers over 100 types of gin through its website.  

This development is part of an ongoing gin boom in the domestic market. The period of fastest growth has likely passed – gin revenue in Taiwan nearly doubled between 2020 and 2023 to around US$2.9 million. Still, it’s expected to increase annually by around 7% over the next five years, according to data compiler Statista. International numbers are even more impressive. The global gin market was valued at US$14 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach US$20.2 billion by 2028, reports U.S. market research firm Allied Market Research. 

Taking note of this global renaissance in gin interest, Yilan County-based Kavalan Distillery launched its own gin series five years ago. It was a natural progression for the maker of Taiwan’s best-selling whisky, as gin brands like Hendrick’s, Tanqueray, and The Botanist all emerged from whisky distilleries. Unlike whisky, which requires aging, gin can be manufactured and sold immediately, making it a profitable addition to a distillery’s portfolio. Juniper and ethanol are the only two required ingredients for a spirit to be called gin, which must have a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume (ABV). 

Kavalan was the first maker to bring Taiwanese gin to the global stage. The company says its products are more popular in the United States and Europe than in Asia, where Japan is regarded as the regional leader in high-quality spirits. Still, Kavalan’s trailblazing has paved the way for the many new Taiwanese craft gin brands now available.  

At the Gin Festival Taipei 2023, held in June at the Huashan 1914 Creative Park, a few Taiwan-distilled bottles could be spotted among hundreds from all over the world. Two standouts were the osmanthus and oolong-infused Valor Dry Gin by New Taipei-based Christian alcohol maker Holy Distillery and the Ruigui Gin by Hualien-based Soul & Spirits.  

Among the enthusiastic samplers were UK documentary filmmaker Arthur Martin, creator of Taiwan-based documentary channel Photoslot TV, and German national Bernhard Gruendemann, founder of the James Joyce Irish Bar in Taipei. While noting that there aren’t yet enough Taiwanese brands to make for a festival featuring only domestic brands, Martin expresses a strong belief in the market potential for gin here.   

“I honestly believe that gin is replacing whisky very soon because there is a much more personal attachment to the drink,” he says. Unlike whisky, which is often expensive and demands the “right setting” for enjoyment, Martin says gin can be served in all types of locations and for all types of occasions.  

However, sources with industry knowledge tell me that major alcohol players are expected to maintain their focus in Taiwan on whisky. While gin demand is growing, whisky remains the most profitable spirit in the region. The upside of this trend is that it leaves more room for craft distillers and small distributors to thrive in the market. 

And you don’t need to wait for the next gin festival to experience high-quality gin. Several bars in Taipei are sharing their love for the spirit with customers of all experience and knowledge levels. 

Check-in for gin 

Shangri-La Far Eastern, Taipei was the first and remains the only hotel gin bar in Taipei. Located at the hotel’s Lobby Court, the bar opened over a decade ago, when gin had yet to take off in Taiwan. The driving force behind the decision was Shangri-La, Taipei’s then-general manager, a Dutch national and gin enthusiast (coincidentally, the word “gin” is said to originate from the Dutch word for juniper – genever).  

With around 90 types of gin on offer and highly enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff, Shangri-La, Taipei’s Lobby Court bar is a great place to discover new gin. But with so many options, choosing “the right gin” can be an intimidating task.  

Assistant Director of Food and Beverage Deborah Shapiro says a contemporary gin like Hendrick’s is a good place to start. “Contemporary gins are more distilled and often incorporate different botanicals and other flavors,” she says. After initial introductions, the best way forward is to just experiment.  

“When I started out, I began with the popular brands like Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray, and then I started asking bartenders for their recommendations,” says Shapiro. “You can usually ask to smell it or taste a small amount, so you don’t waste a whole drink on something you don’t like.” After mentioning that I prefer floral gin, I get to try a few Japanese and Taiwanese variants, all of which are of such high quality that I can enjoy them neat.  

For those looking to refine their skills, Shangri-La, Taipei’s Head Bartender Shane Shao hosts gin-centered workshops, teaching participants everything from how to make gin cocktails to crafting gin-infused jam and candles. These workshops have been popular among Taipei residents, Shao says, and participants particularly enjoy bringing workshop memorabilia home with them.  

Over at the Marriott Taipei’s first-floor Lobby Lounge bar, gin has also recently taken on a central role. The hotel has set up a time-limited Gin Laboratory that encourages experimentation and exploration.  

“Gin is popular now – everybody loves gin,” says Marriott Taipei Director of F&B Orbie Yang. “But some people don’t know too much about gin – they just think gin is gin and that’s it.” He adds that this realization is what inspired the laboratory-themed event.  

Guests are presented with a trolley of four gin bottles, the corks of which have been replaced with perfume atomizers. Next to the bottles stands a container with perfume testing sticks for guests to spray on, allowing them to smell their way to their favorite – a presentation that demonstrates the importance of fragrance in the spirit. 

With the aid of a pamphlet that explains the mixing process step-by-step, guests can find flavor profiles that fit their liking. After choosing a suitable gin base, they can add their preferred condiments to their gin and tonic, including mint leaves, dried grapefruit, marigold, oolong tea, and lemon slices. For those who prefer more complex mixes, the Gin Lab also features four original gin cocktails. This pop-up event is available until the end of February.  

Getting “ginspired” 

Perhaps Taipei’s coolest gin bar, Ginspiration has been described by netizens as “the most professional gin museum” in Taiwan. The bar, which opened in 2015, is located on the third floor of Fleisch Café on Taipei’s historic Dihua Street and is adorned with retro-looking apothecary cabinets. I ask whether the décor was inspired by gin’s historical use as medicine in ancient Egypt, Greece, and later medieval Europe. It wasn’t. 

“Our boss has a background with chemicals, gin is related to chemicals, and Dihua Street used to be the chemical area,” a staff member tells me. During the Japanese colonial era, the Dihua Street neighborhood was the primary location in Taipei for wholesale Chinese medicinal herbs. Today, herbal medicine dispensaries are predominantly clustered around Minle Street, just north of Dihua, earning it the local nickname “herbal lane.”  

Ginspiration’s menu showcases a limited selection of bottles and is updated depending on the season. The menu I hold includes bottles from India, Japan, Sweden, Taiwan, and the UK. The staff tell me they’ve worked to present the flavor profiles as intuitively as possible through color coding. They point to the orange color, which signifies that the gin contains orange and citrusy tones, and then the green, which indicates an herbal flavor profile. For those looking to venture outside the menu, the bar boasts a collection of over 200 types of gin.  

The first gin I try is Aviation American Gin, which was acquired by British multinational Diageo in 2020. While actor Ryan Reynolds is the face of the brand (he also maintains an ongoing ownership interest in Aviation), its founder Ryan Magarian is said to have coined the term “contemporary gin” in 2009.  

I ask to taste Aviation in the form of a “strong gin tonic” (Europeans and Japanese tend to drop the “and”). The drink arrives in a tall glass with a slice of lemon and despite its strength, the alcohol flavor is not overpowering. To me, that indicates high quality. At bars that use the cheapest gin, asking for a strong gin and tonic will often result in a grimace-inducing experience.  

Next, the bartenders make me a cocktail with Taiwan Makauy Superb Craft-Gin, produced by state-owned Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor (TTL). This manufacturer and distributor was a monopoly until 2002. The TTL gin in my cocktail last year received the Monde Selection Grand Gold Quality Award (the highest accolade issued by Belgium-based International Quality Institute), a testament to Taiwan’s capacity to produce high-quality spirits.  

The Makauy gin incorporates a unique blend of flavors derived from a medley of ingredients, including grapefruit, coriander seeds, sweet orange, and jasmine green tea. I forgot to mention that I prefer sour cocktails, and as a result my drink is a bit too sweet for my liking. Still, the flavors blend well, and the drink is presented beautifully in a cocktail glass adorned with citrus peels.  

This presentation is common in Taiwan. While in Western bars gin traditionally is found in straightforward gin and tonic cocktails, Taiwanese mixologists have tapped into the nation’s dynamic cocktail culture, often elevating gin to the status of the primary spirit in inventive concoctions. Taiwanese distillers also tend to experiment with ingredients, some of which may not always suit every palate.  

“Taiwan always has to fiddle with the original, whether it’s food, beer, gin,” says bar owner Gruendemann. “You’re seeing all these weird, wonderful flavors getting added into gin, so Taiwan then creates its own style.” While he admires the creativity exhibited, Gruendemann says he wonders whether some of the ingredients blend successfully. “If someone’s going to try a ‘Chinese medicine-style’ gin and that’s their first introduction to gin, they haven’t really tasted what gin is really like,” he says.  

Nevertheless, this sense of playfulness and creativity is precisely what gin’s versatility encourages, and may explain its resurgent popularity. And as Taiwan continues to redefine the boundaries of gin, one thing is clear – it’s a journey worth toasting to.

For a simple yet superior gin experience, try one of these:  

Gin and tonic with cucumber and pepper 

This way of serving gin, which has long been popular in my native Sweden, is simple and refreshing, and works especially well with Hendrick’s. Place two thin slices of cucumber in a tall drinking glass, add ice cubes, and grind in a bit of black pepper. Pour in gin and tonic and stir. Most people recommend a gin-tonic ratio of 1:3.  

Contemporary gin soda 

One of the best low-calorie options that still tastes great, and my go-to on a night out. In my opinion, a good gin doesn’t need tonic. Contemporary gins with deep floral flavors only need ice and soda water. If you must, top the drink off with fresh or dried citrus, or a couple of mint leaves.   

Sloe gin 

A few years ago during a visit home, my brother asked if I wanted to try a sloe gin he’d just bought. I was instantly curious. He made me a drink and laughed at me when I told him it was great, but I didn’t really understand what was slow about it.  

Turns out the answer was “nothing.” Sloe gin is a British red liqueur made with gin and sloes, also called blackthorns. The drink contains between 15% and 30% alcohol, though if you’re drinking it in the EU, you can be assured it contains at least 25% ABV (the minimum legal requirement). Sloe gin is fruity and can be served neat, with a mixer, or used in cooking.  

If you like slightly sweeter drinks, try a sloe gin fizz, which is basically sloe gin mixed with lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda water. For an elevated experience, serve your sloe gin with prosecco.  

Non-alcoholic gin and tonic 

As more people turn to non-alcoholic spirits, the quality of non-alcoholic gins has been improving. Following Deborah Shapiro’s tip of starting out with a better-known brand, I recommend Tanqueray 0.0% Alcohol Free gin.  

Tanqueray incorporates juniper, coriander, angelica, and licorice in its signature gin. It’s a celebrity favorite and is even said to have been American legend and singer Frank Sinatra’s preferred gin. The non-alcoholic version allows you to discover the definitive experience from Tanqueray, just without the alcohol. Serve with your preferred tonic and garnish over ice, then sip, savor, and enjoy. 

Please drink responsibly.