Updates 2012: Stefan's "vignette" on casks
Updates: What does the future hold for Karuizawa? And Kirin and Suntory in merger talks. And Strike Karuizawa from your tour plans and No.1 acquires all the stock
The town of Karuizawa is a well known tourist spot. High in the Japanese Alps, it is traditionally a place for sweating inhabitants of the Tokyo plain to come for a bit of relief in summer. In fact, the current Emperor met his wife on a trip to Karuizawa. The Karuizawa distillery, in a populated area to the West of the main part of Karuizawa, sits somewhat insecurely on the southern slopes of Mount Asama, the island of Honshu's most active volcano. The mountain has erupted 152 times, most recently in 2004. Karuizawa malts have a reputation of being a bit on the aggressive side too.
The DistilleryThe Karuizawa site, previously a vineyard, first started distilling in 1956 and became one of three distilleries owned by the Mercian company . Mercian used to blend all Karuizawa's malts with products from its other distilleries but from about 1987 it began producing single malts from here. They built up a good reputation. Karuizawa has four stills and takes its water from a spring under Mount Asama. It uses Golden Promise malt shipped from Simpson’s of Berwick. Much of its whisky is matured in Sherry casks. The distillery's ivy covered buildings are quite picturesque and Mercian capitalise on this with a museum, visitor centre and restaurant on the site.
In 2006/7 Mercian was taken over the Kirin conglomerate, which has retained the Mercian name as a subdivision of its massive alcohol business. It is as yet unclear how the takeover will effect the Karuizawa whisky line. Kirin also own the Fuji Gotemba single brands (and a number of other cheaper whisky brands) and the takeover of Mercian has made them a significant force in whisky. The Mercian acquisition may not have been motivated by a drive to expand their whisky business, however. The conglomerate has subsequently made Mercian the centre of its wine division but transferred the sales side of the Karuizawa whisky brand to its Kirin offices. I have been asked whether the merger might also effect Karuizawa production, with perhaps fewer bottlings or (horror of horrors) a halt in production. I published this post explaining my current understanding of the situation.
Karuizawa in Japanese characters
In computer text, in case you want to search for Karuizawa on the Japanese internet: 軽井沢 (Karuizawa) ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)
Single malts from Karuizawa
See the side bar.
LocationView location on map of Japan's single malt distilleries. (If you download Google Earth and click on the "KML" button above this map you can see the topography in 3D!)
Good visitor facilities. Not sure whether there is a distillery tour.
1795-2 Oaza Maseguchi,
Address in Japanese:
軽井沢蒸留所 〒389-0207 長野県北佐久郡御代田町大字馬瀬口1795-2