Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The “Asama Casks” and Karuizawa Cask-Strength “1st Release” for Taiwan

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

When Number One Drinks bought the entire remaining inventory of Karuizawa distillery, they quickly discovered the vast majority of the stock was from the 1999 and 2000 vintages, the final years of production. It was immediately clear that this relatively young malt needed to be categorized as soon as possible – there was loads of it and it was uneven in terms of taste profile – and so they brought in their Master Blender who tasted every single cask. Some casks were earmarked as “immediately ready to be bottled as single casks”, but most needed re-racking. (A few were rejected altogether.) The stock that had been put aside for vatting was nosed and tasted again to confirm the relative maturity and the taste profile. It was then decided to create two different vattings, both of which involved bringing together the liquid from a number of casks and then returning the contents to the original casks, all of which were still very active sherry butts. Obviously, since each of the original casks was less than full, fewer casks were needed to re-rack the vatted contents.

The first batch was a vatting of 77 casks – re-racked into 60 casks – that were considered to be mature already. These 77 casks were the ones needed to produce the final profile the Master Blender was looking for. The second vatting was of those casks he felt needed more maturation, with 59 casks re-racked into 46 casks. This was all carried out in late 2011, early 2012. Since then, there have been a few releases drawn from these re-racked 1999/2000 casks – let’s call them the “Asama casks”, for the sake of brevity. Everything so far has been from the first vatting:

(1) the “Asama” (46%), released in 2012 – which was first available in Sweden, and then in other markets as well;

(2) two single marrying-casks for the Tokyo International Bar Show / Whisky Live 2012, bottled at cask-strength;

(3) two “Spirit of Asama” releases for The Whisky Exchange, bottled at 48% and 55% abv respectively;

(4) a cask-strength version (61.7%) called “1st Release” for Taiwan

A fifth one – a 2013 version of the first vatting, which has benefitted from 18 months of marriage, bottled at 50.5% and with new packaging – will be launched over the summer.
Today, we’ll focus on the recent “1st Release” for Taiwan. On the nose, the initial impressions are dried fruits (raisins, dates), prune juice, porcini, polished leather and a hint of rosemary – it’s reminiscent of some A’bunadhs but with a more earthy, vegetal dimension. After a while, there are subtle hints of virgin oak, menthol, after eights, raspberry sauce, liquorice allsorts and duck a l’orange. There’s also a gentle underlying smokiness, which adds further depth. Quite an intriguing nose. Neat on the palate, you get orange zest, assorted dried fruits with prunes quite prominent again, candied ginger and white pepper but also steamed new potatoes, burdock soup, roasted capsicum and a bit of chicory. On paper – well, on the screen – it doesn’t sound like that would work, but it does and marvelously so. It’s very drinkable undiluted, but it swims well, too. Water makes it more fresh on the nose – with grassy notes and hints of overripe pears and honeydew melon – and brings out orange pound cake and lemon sabl├ęs. It’s a versatile dram and you can really tweak it to your taste and to the mood you’re in. The finish is medium-long on milk chocolate spiked with cointreau. Fabulous.

This isn’t something that was hastily thrown together. Someone with a clear vision was behind this, but there’s nothing forced about it at all. It’s as if someone knew exactly what the liquid in these casks was dreaming of being - but couldn’t be on its own - and then found a way to make it happen.

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

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