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Two Noh Mask bottlings from the Karuizawa range

Karuizawa

Japan's Sleeping Giant

A potted history of one of the world's most famous closed distilleries and the whiskies it produced.

The Legacy of Shinjiro Torii

It is something of an irony that the founding father of Japanese whisky, Shinjiro Torii, intended for Japanese whisky to be a spirit that could be enjoyed by the average consumer; when in reality, the vicissitudes of recent whisky history – and the combination of increasing rarity and rising demand in recent years – have determined that Karuizawa whisky has become one of the most rarefied and expensive spirits in the world.

The Birth of Karuizawa Distillery

The small and unassuming Karuizawa Distillery was established by Daikoku Budoshun on the southern slope of Mount Asama volcano in Japan’s southern alps in 1955. During the 1960s, Daikoku and its distilleries were absorbed by the Mercian Corporation. From that time, Karuizawa malts were most often used in Daikoku Ocean blend whisky, with intermittent single malts releases appearing to no great fanfare. After a period of relatively inconspicuous production, Karuizawa fell victim to a dramatic slump in consumer demand for whisky during the 1980s and 1990s. The distillery was mothballed in 2000 and permanently closed in 2011.

That was that – or so it was assumed. But what happened next defied all expectation.

The Number One Drinks Company's Intervention

As consumer interest in single malts steadily rose from the noughties onwards, the rich, Sherry cask-matured style of single malt favoured by Karuizawa became hugely popular. A resurgent interest in single malts generated an increase in demand – at a level that few people could have predicted. The decision to permanently close Karuizawa was taken by then-owner, Kirin. At the time, the distillery housed about 350 casks of whisky which, shockingly in retrospect, Kirin was willing to see absorbed in blends.

That was when Marcin Miller and David Croll of the Number One Drinks Company stepped in. After lengthy negotiations, they were able to purchase the entire remaining stock from Kirin. Since then a number of special single-cask releases and collectible series have emerged, and as stocks have continued to fall, prices have truly soared.

The Unique Mesoclimate of Karuizawa

The mesoclimate of the area in which Karuizawa whisky was made was central to its distinctively rich, almost Scotch single malt-like style. The high diurnal temperatures fluctuations in the Japanese Alps – in marked contrast to the relatively consistent climate of Scotland – dictated that the alcohol level of Karuizawa whisky remained fairly high (due to a lower proportion of the ‘angel’s share’ being lost). This resulted in the kind of concentrated flavour that was increasingly being sought by a new generation of whisky connoisseurs.

The Karuizawa Whisky Collectors' Craze

The scarcity of both new and old Karuizawa single malt meant that customers began turning to the secondary market to find elusive bottles, and new records continued to be set at auction houses around the globe. This Karuizawa fever reached its high point in March 2020 when a single bottle of 52-year-old Karuizawa Zodiac Rat Cask #5627 fetched £363,000 (US$435,273) at Sotheby’s in London – thus becoming the world’s most expensive Japanese whisky sold at auction. This is also the oldest bottle of Karuizawa single malt ever bottled.

Notable Karuizawa Whisky Collections

First introduced in 2008, the NOH collection is one of the largest and most popular series of Karuizawa whiskies. Each of these single-cask expressions is intensely sought-after; collections featuring every bottling in the series are extremely rare and are attract great attention among the whisky community. Similarly rare and coveted is the iconic Karuizawa Geisha series.

To date, limited collections containing whiskies aged for 29, 30, 31 and 50 years, and bottled in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, have been released to fevered excitement among collectors. Other popular Karuizawa collections include the Karuizawa Fight Club Collection, Ghost Series, Thousand Arrows and Samurai collection, while at the more accessible end, the cheapest bottle from this sleeping giant distillery is a no-age-statement Karuizawa Spirit of Asama, which can be found £4,000 a bottle.

The Awakening of Karuizawa

Amid the fluctuations in demand for single malt whisky over the past decades, even centuries, the dramatic awakening of Japan’s Sleeping Giant, Karuizama, is unprecedented. And while its phenomenal rise in value cannot continue on such a steep upward trajectory forever, for now, it shows no sign of abating.

Karuizawa 28 Year Old Sherry Cask 3692
HED85639 / 70cl / 61.6%
£6,710.00
A legend of the whisky world, the Karuizawa distillery was in operation between 1955 and 2001, and so their bottles have become quite the collector`s item for whisky enthusiasts. This vintage single malt was bottled in 2012, after maturing in a sherry cask for 28 years. The resulting whisky is incredibly nuanced, packed with seductive flavours of fruits, spices and dark chocolate.
Karuizawa First Fill Sherry Cask 4021
HED84176 / 70cl / 64.5%
£8,090.00
Released in October 2012, this first-fill sherry cask matured Japanese whisky from Karuizawa sold out within days of going on sale. The whisky has an intriguing aroma profile, including pencil shavings, resiny oak, tobacco and cedar wood. The palate is very rewarding, boasting red fruits, cedar wood and cinnamon spice.
Karuizawa First Fill Sherry Cask 6256
HED6104 / 70cl / 57.5%
£7,750.00
A single malt whisky distilled in 1981 at the legendary Japanese distillery Karuizawa. The whisky was bottled in 2011 after maturing for 30 years in first-fill sherry cask. The resulting liquid is full of depth and complex, with a rich mix of sweet and savoury aromas and flavours.
Karuizawa 30 Year Old Warren Khong Artifices 013
HED60169 / 70cl / 57.7%
£9,900.00
Karuizawa is an increasingly scarce Japanese single malt from a permanently closed distillery that has reached mythical status. Established in the 1950s, the business didn’t survive a series of financial obstacles and eventually shut down in 2000. Forming part of the Artifices range by La Maison du Whisky launched in 2015, this bottle is a vintage Karuizawa, featuring a striking label designed by Singaporean artist Warren Khong. The release is a 30-year-old single malt which was distilled in November 1984 and bottled in October 2015 after spending three decades in a single sherry cask.
Karuizawa 30 Year Old Cask 2364 Warren Khong Artifices 003
HED53788 / 70cl / 55.2%
£11,000.00
From the now closed Karuizawa distillery in Nagano prefecture, this 30 year old single malt was aged in ex-Sherry casks & bottled at 55.2% ABV.
Karuizawa 30 Year Old Artifice Series Cask 8838
HED39563 / 70cl / 61.6%
£9,900.00
Karuizawa is an increasingly scarce Japanese single malt from a permanently closed distillery that has reached mythical status. Established in the 1950s, the business didn’t survive a series of financial obstacles and eventually shut down in 2000. This particular release was distilled in September 1984 and bottled in August 2015 after spending 30 years of maturation in a single sherry cask #8838.
Karuizawa 33 Year Old Cask 136
HED85878 / 70cl / 54.5%
£11,000.00
Established in the mid-1950s, Karuizawa was the highest distillery above sea levels, until it stopped operations in 2000 and eventually closed down in 2011 due to financial difficulties. Since then, the Japanese distillery has reached mythical status and their single malts are increasingly scarce. This particular release is a single malt distilled in March 1981 and matured for 33 years in a single sherry cask [#136] until being bottled up in July 2014. The label displays a beautiful artwork by Singapore artist Warren Khong.
Karuizawa 35 Year Old
HED71944 / 70cl / 61.6%
£11,000.00
Karuizawa is an increasingly scarce Japanese single malt from a permanently closed distillery that has reached mythical status. Established in the 1950s, the business didn’t survive a series of financial obstacles and eventually shut down in 2000. This very rare 35-year-old expression was distilled in 1980 and bottled for London-based Speciality Drinks in 2015, at a hefty 61.6% ABV. A highly collectible, one-of-a-kind whisky.
Karuizawa Five Decades 1960-2000
HED60279 / 70cl / 61%
£15,000.00
Established in 1955 in the foothills of Mount Asama, Karuizawa was the highest distillery above sea levels, until it stopped operations in 2000 and finally closed in 2011. Since then, the Japanese distillery reached mythical status and their whiskies increasingly scarce. This very exclusive bottling of Karuizawa was launched at department store Isetan in Shinjuku. The whisky contains a vatting of casks from five decades of Karuizawa, from the 1960s right up until the distillery`s closure in 2000, only leaving out a very low period of production during the 1950s.