Even amongst whisky fans only die hard fans will have heard of this Japanese whisky distillery, as it went silent (ceased production) in 2001 after 45 years of distilling, and was finally closed altogether in 2011. Thanks to this fact, and the fact that it was Japan's smallest distillery, it's also one of the rarest and most sought after Japanese whiskies. The buy-in price for even a mid-range bottling of Karuizawa is well into the thousands, and can usually only be found at auction or specialist rare whisky stores (with pricing to match). A bottle of 52-year old Karuizawa holds the record for the highest amount paid for a Japanese whisky at auction, which went for almost $120,000 USD in Hong Kong in 2015. Absolutely insane. Needless to say Karuizawa bottles are way out of my price range, so this review comes to you via the extreme generosity of an anonymous benefactor.
Karuizawa's old warehouse buildings. Image courtesy of jpninfo.com
Karuizawa Distillery was located in the town of Miyota, around 3 hours drive north-west of Tokyo, and is near the base of Mount Asama, an active volcano which last erupted just last year in June of 2015. In fact run-off and natural springs from the volcano supplied the water source for the distillery, which also imported Golden Promise barley (arguably a big contributor to the past successes of Macallan) from the UK for distillation in its two pairs of small pot stills, giving an annual production capacity of just 150,000 litres. To help you put that into perspective, the current production capacity of Hakushu Distillery is around 3,000,000 litres, while Yamazaki's maximum capacity is more than twice that. There are some remaining casks of Karuizawa still maturing, although they're now located at Chichibu Distillery and are owned by UK-based No.1 Drinks Company.
This particular bottling that I'm reviewing is an independent bottling from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and was released in 2013 with an 'out-turn', which is SMWS speak for release, of 335 bottles. I've covered more details on the SMWS here (along with a review of an amazing Ardbeg bottling), but to recap they sell single cask whiskies, and more recently also other spirits, from a large range of distilleries, and they always bottle at cask strength, without chill filtration or added colouring. This 132.2 bottling is a 22 year old Karuizawa which was matured in a single refill sherry butt (a 500-litre cask), and as the numbering tells us it was the second cask of Karuizawa to be bottled by the SMWS. It was bottled at a cask strength of 62.4%, which is quite massive for a 22-year old whisky, although a number of older Karuizawa bottlings do seem to be surprisingly high strength, so it could be down to the local climate and storage conditions.
SMWS 132.2 (Karuizawa), 22 years old, 62.4%. Miyota, Japan.
Matured in a refill ex-sherry cask, distilled September 1991. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 335 bottles released.
Nose: Richly fruity, spicy & sherried. Dried fruits - mango, red apple, orange, red berries and stone fruit. Some dusty toasted oak, and powered spices - sandalwood, cinnamon, roasted nuts, and some dried flowers. A little salty as well.
Texture: Medium-weight, but quite punchy, spicy and drying.
Taste: Richly fruity & spicy again. More stone fruit, then hot dried chilli flakes. Sweet sherried fruits, oxidised red apple, saw dust, and something a little ashy, like cold ashes.
Finish: Long, but quite light. Drying and spicy. More sandalwood and chilli flakes, fading to wood spices and more fruit - oxidising red apples, and sweet stone fruit, dried flowers, and more sawdust. A little of that cold ash comes back with more time, which I find surprising.
Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Notes: As Mr. Vader would say, impressive, most impressive! Very complex and quite challenging as well. Started out a little hot, which you might not expect given the age, but this is definitely the highest ABV old whisky I've ever tasted, so by that degree it wasn't bad at all. And it settled down nicely with more time in the glass anyway. There's a nice amount of rich-yet-slightly-dry sherry influence in here too, which is very pleasant. Certainly completely different to any other Japanese whisky I've tasted, richer and more characterful, and of course more challenging. Granted I don't have much experience in this particular field, but I would guess this to be what an 'old school' Japanese malt would have been like. And thanks to the SMWS, it was unadulterated and most importantly, undiluted in every sense.
I feel very lucky to have even tasted a Karuizawa of any sort, but even more so to sample one of this calibre and rarity. I'm struggling to understand why this distillery was closed, and even more so why the previous owners declined multiple offers to purchase the distillery before it was too late. Regardless, what an experience, and a fitting way to ease into the last weeks of the year. A big thanks to the aforementioned benefactor for this sample, I owe you one... again!