Stefan's Distillery Vignettes: Karuizawa casks

Post by Nonjatta contributor Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

This is the first in an ongoing series entitled "Distillery Vignettes", featuring snapshots of Japanese distilleries, usually focusing on some particular detail(s) of interest. What better way to kick off the series than to start with Karuizawa distillery, which unfortunately is now officially a "lost distillery." It was closed in the fall of 2011 after more than a decade of inactivity. When all of the remaining maturing stock was bought by the people behind Number One Drinks and moved to the Chichibu distillery, it was clear to everyone that there was no hope of resurrection anymore.

Having fallen in love with Karuizawa distillery (not only the whisky, but the actual place itself) long before the Number One Drinks-led rise-to-legendary-status abroad, I felt particularly sad about the end of the Karuizawa era. I never understood why the people at Kirin gave up on the distillery: it just doesn't make any sense at all, not when you consider the quality (and prestige abroad!) of the whisky as well as the history and heritage. It's very sad that nobody wanted to keep it alive - maybe it all comes down to the business of vested interest. I guess it wasn't in anybody's best interests to keepit alive. The sale of the remaining casks also means the end of Karuizawa's (i.e. the whisky) presence in Japan - I was told by someone in the know that one of the conditions of the sale of the complete stock was that it would not be sold in Japan. Well, at least people in Europe will get to enjoy the fruits of its glorious past (including a 52-year old single cask, to be released later this year).

Anyway, I visited Karuizawa distillery on many occasions... Today, I thought I'd just share a couple of snapshots of a visit I made in the spring of 2008, focusing on casks. Everyone knows about Karuizawa's adherence to traditional Scottish whisky-making practice, its use of Golden Promise barley, etc. but I've always wondered about the casks. This is not a minor detail, given the importance of the contribution of the cask to the final flavour profile. It would be really interesting to find out what casks were sourced where and how, what the wood policy was, and so on. In one of the photos, you can clearly see that some of the casks were from the Macallan distillery (when it was still hyphenated as "Macallan-Glenlivet") - the year on the casks is 1977. I'd love to be able to speak to someone who was actually in charge of warehouse management at Karuizawa when it was an active distillery. Until then, we'll just have to be satisfied with these glorious photos showing a distillery basking in the sun... as it will do no more.


Pierre W said…
Hi Stefan, thank you for this rather informative piece of work and for the great pictures. When I was in Japan last October I was surprised how hard it was to locate a bottle of Karuizawa. Your article seems to explain that. I shall look forward to more of your distillery vignettes!
Hi Pierre, thanks for your kind words. You're right, it's becoming next to impossible to locate a bottle of Karuizawa in Japan - a rather sad state of affairs, I think. Occasionally, you can find one of the official bottles (12yo, 17yo, ...), but only in small liquor shops in local places where they've been sitting on the shelf for years. Before the distillery was closed for good (i.e. until October 2011), you could buy an enormous range of single casks at the distillery shop (they never had an online shop, btw) and a very interesting range of Rouge Casks bottlings (matured in ex-wine casks) at very reasonable prices. The single cask bottlings available at the distillery were all bottled in very small quantities, i.e. they would bottle 10 or 20 of every vintage and offer those in the shop. At some point, when some of the vintages were sold out, they would bottle another 10 or 20. That's why you can see different bottling dates (and even different ages) for whisky drawn from the same cask. Hope this helps. Thanks again
Pierre W said…
Hi Stefan, many thanks for your reply. You seem to be a fount of knowledge as far as Karuizawa is concerned! Sadly, I never made it to the distillery, and it seems that I really missed out on a particular experience. When I was in Japan last October I managed to buy an official 15yo bottling which I have not opened yet. Interestingly it was rather cheap, especially compared to the expressions that are (sometimes) available here in Switzerland, but then those are mostly single cask bottlings. Again, many thanks for your insights.
Indeed... the good old days when Karuizawas were fairly priced. For people who don't know the whole picture, Karuizawa's rise to fame is seen as a good thing (a vindication of sorts), and the people who helped orchestrate it as doing the global whisky community a tremendous favour. I've got a very different view of the whole thing. For me, it's one of the saddest pages in Japanese whisky history. I don't mind paying a bit more than what I'd consider fair for whisky, when that helps assure the future of a whisky distillery dedicated to craftsmanship and quality. I do mind paying much more than fair (of course, people can argue that whatever the market is willing to pay is fair, but that's a different discussion) when the profit goes straight into the pockets of people who didn't have anything to do with making the product in the first place.
Hello guys, I hope you don't mind me wading in here, but there are a number of points I felt it necessary to clarify:

Firstly, there aren't several thousands of casks of Karuizawa left. There aren’t even several hundred. And if you don't believe me, ask yourself this: where on earth would Akuro-san stock several thousand casks of Karuizawa? And that on top of the remaining stock of Hanyu and Kawasaki he already looks after..!

Secondly, these bottles (the four vintages and one multi-vintage mentioned on the La Maison du Whisky Facebook page yestersay, where Stefan no doubt saw them) will be expensive, yes, but they still remain significantly less expensive than the equivalent from Scotland: how many official single cask bottlings of Port Ellen, for example, can you find from the same vintage at the same price?! Or Brora?! Look at official bottlings of Macallan and Highland Park, for example, from the same years and tell me which is more expensive! And they come from distilleries where production never really ceased, and are being sold directly by the distillery owners. I may not know ALL the details behind the pricing, but what I do know does not point to Number One Drinks artificially inflating prices. What it does point to is a completely disinterested beer company doing all they can to jeopardise attempts to sell any of the product they inherited from previous owners, and to do all they can to focus fully on the much more industrially and cheaper-produced malt and grain whiskies from another much bigger and much more economically viable distillery.

Thirdly, as for the Japanese not being big fans of Karuizawa, I'm not surprised. Even today, most "serious" Japanese connoisseurs remain convinced that Scotch whisky is inherently Superior to Japanese whisky. Also, bear in mind how much money Suntory spends on marketing: that may not be the only reason Yamazaki 12 is so highly regarded, but it is certainly one of them. And Kirin has never spent much on Karuizawa... What's more, Karuizawa stopped distilling long before the current revival, and was never able to benefit from the grass-roots enthusiasm for Japanese ji-whisky. I think it unfair so say that Number One Drinks "didn't have anything to do with making the product in the first place:" we're talking about single-casks and so the person who decides when and how to bottles is just as responsible as the person who distilled the new-make. After all, how else do you judge the value of Gordon & MacPhail, Signatory Vintage, Douglas Laing etc. ?

Fourthly, as for feeling sorry for collectors of Karuizawa, I'm afraid I have little sympathy. I've never been able to understand the need to own every single bottle from a particular distillery or year or style or whatever... If you think collecting Karuizawas is financially debilitating, just try Port Ellen, Bowmore, Ardbeg! As for those who really must collect, for a long time now I've been telling them to pack in Karuizawa and start collecting Kawasaki (same company, much rarer, all bottlings so far still available and not many more to come) but will they listen?!

Lastly, there wasn't just TWE on the above-mentioned trip to Karuizawa. There were two people from TWE, two from LMDW, two from Number One Drinks and a further person from Taiwan. So no, I'm not prepared to "bet your life the 52-year old single cask will be a Whisky Exchange exclusive."
Thanks very much for your response and for clarifying some interesting facts.

I just wanted to respond to the comparison with official releases of closed and/or still operating distilleries, because the situation with Karuizawa is unique to my knowledge (as I indicated in one of my responses above). I know talking about fair pricing is an endless and ultimately pointless debate, because the market decides in the end anyway, but I did want to highlight a couple of differences in comparing with distilleries in Scotland (something I generally stay away from because the situation is here is very different).

It’s true that some official bottlings of Macallan and Highland Park are expensive (the same goes for part of the Suntory and Nikka portfolio) but the key word here is “some”. In those cases, they are part of a wider range (in terms of price) of products that are available to whisky enthusiasts. It’s only natural for a business to cater to as wide a market-spectrum as possible - giving the consumer a choice - because let’s face it, what you may consider to be expensive may be reasonable to me and vice versa.
As far as Brora and Port Ellen are concerned, I agree comparable vintages are expensive too, but again there is a choice here: there is a range of independent bottlers offering these closed distillery whiskies and prices vary depending on who is offering what to whom, in what packaging / limited turnout / and so on. I also think it’s a bit of a red herring to compare Number One Drinks to independent bottlers such as G&M, Signatory and Douglas Laing (companies that have been laying down stock from many distilleries for many decades). The situation is completely different in Japan: there are no real independent bottlers of whisky here because there’s no cask swapping and there are no cask brokers here. Also, I’m not aware of any independent bottler in Scotland owning the complete stock of a closed distillery. I think, the basic point that dramtastic and myself were trying to make was that the Karuizawa situation is unique (one company holding all stock of a closed distillery for exclusive sale abroad) and that, as with all monopolies, the consumer is at the mercy of the monopoly-possessing company.
Hi Stefan & Dramtastic,

Good points! I guess I should have recognised the "several thousand" fihure from Ulf. Just another mistake in what could have been a very good book on Japanese whisky but just never quite made it... I agree that the situation is totally unique, but don't forget that Ichiro Akuto can be considered an independent bottler (even if on an infinitely dmaller scale than DL, G&M & co.) and that he also happens to be the only other individual (through his company Venture Whisky) to own the entire remaining stock of not just one but two closed and flattened distilleries - Kawasaki and Hanyu. So I guess we could say that not only is Karuizawa unique, but that The entire Japanese whisky scene is unique! I implied above that Karuizawa is a strange beast because it was (almost) a ji-whisky before Akuto gave impetus and identity to the notion, well I thing Japanese whisky is a strange beast because of its ressemblance to Scotch whisky whilst at the same time bathing in an atmosphere which is so completely different!

Anyway, I agree entirely that more bottlings might be anice thing (although I really do think that with quite a few IBs all you are really getting is a different label on a whisky not aged athe distillery and originally intended for blends...) so you may be interested to know that Number One Drinks, with LMDW and TWE (the latter I don't actuallt know, I'm just assuming...) are working on developing more accessible versions. The "multi-vintage" which we at LMDW have just developed is something of a first step in that direction (although as yet an expensive one, admittedly). When you think about, the duo of Number One Drinks and Venture Whisky really are the only people in Japan to be able to (and to want to) do this and I think they deserve our thanks, however difficult and expensive the first attelpts may be.

On a side note, how do you see rhe Whisky Live Tokyo bottlings? Personally I've come to see them as somerhing apart from the plethora of exclusive bottlings, and as a proper line of independant bottlings under a distinctive label. I'm also not surprised thzt they're largely the work of David Croll (of Number One Drinks) and Ichiro Akuto (of Venture Whisky and Chichibu distillery)...

Anyway, thanks for the discussion and your passion, guys! And keep up the brilliant articles and input!
Sorry for the typos: my fingers really are too big for an iPhone keyboard...!
Thanks Nicholas, for taking the time to reply and for your interesting comments. I think it’s healthy and constructive to get views from different sides. This can only make things clearer for those who are passionate about (Japanese) whisky.

I, like many I imagine, would love to get more information about what’s going on behind the scenes in cases like the Karuizawa stock transfer. I understand the confusion about the number of casks: it’s true that Ulf’s book is riddled with half-truths and mistakes. For me, I know for a fact that there used to be a sizeable stock of Karuizawa (I don’t have exact figures, though) because I’ve been visiting the distillery for years and years, speaking to people who work there. I’ve seen the warehouses, and was also told by a distillery worker a couple of years ago that more stock was being matured in a different place not too far away from the distillery. I don’t know what happened before the stock was sold – maybe Kirin decided to move some of it or use it for other purposes. Again, though, I think this illustrates the need for clear information: I’m sure I’m not the only one interested in knowing how much whisky of a closed distillery as historically and qualitatively important as Karuizawa is still available. This, surely, is not a trivial matter.

I completely agree with your comment that Karuizawa was kind of a ji-whisky avant la lettre, which is why I was really saddened when it was clear the distillery wasn’t going to start producing whisky anymore. It would have been interesting to have a couple of good distilleries active in that field. But, that’s what you get when a big company (i.e. Kirin) gets its mitts on a product the value (not only economic value, I hasten to add) of which they don’t understand.

It’s also good to know that steps in the direction of a wider range of Karuizawas are being taken, just like in the old days when you had a variety of Karuizawas available here in Japan (from cheap blends via good mid-price blends to single casks). Of course, they won’t be available here in Japan, but I take it we’ve got Kirin to blame for excluding the domestic market from enjoying the Karuizawa marvels.
Regarding the inflation of prices, I have to say that this is something many people are complaining about. You only have to check discussion forums or whisky blog comments in Europe to know a great number of enthusiasts have picked up on this. (I don’t want to post links, because I don’t want to emphasize negativity.) As dramtastic says, we’re on opposite sides of the divide: the consumer wants – not the lowest possible, I would think, but – a fair price, whereas a business wants to maximize its profit. Again, I think a bit more transparency would dispel suspicions of artificial inflation, myth-creating, collusion between bottler/retail outlets and well-known bloggers/whisky writers, and even (something I have heard say, but refuse to believe) holding back part of the outturn and/or speculating on the auction circuit. It’s only normal for consumers to be concerned about significant increases in price over just a few years. If there are reasons beyond a desire to make more profit, it would be nice to inform whisky lovers about these. I honestly think the consumer would understand, and wouldn’t keep grumbling about the higher prices. But, of course, maybe a business wouldn’t consider that kind of transparency to be in its best interests, although I think it would be, in the long run. Maybe I’m just na├»ve.

To end on a positive note, regarding the Whisky Live Tokyo bottlings, I agree they have become “sort of a proper line of independent bottlings”. I, for one, am a big fan – I think I have (and have tasted) all of them. They’re always very good and very good value for money too and although some have sold out in a flash, most of them are fairly widely available. To give an example (and a hot tip to those living in Tokyo), I noticed a few days ago that many of last year’s bottles are still available (the Chichibus, Karuizawa, …) from Shinanoya’s Shinjuku outlet, and that’s not the only place I’ve seen them. Curious what the next Whisky Live Tokyo / International Bar Show will be like – it’s the first time it’s scheduled during Golden Week, so I don’t know how that will affect the turnout (many people travel with their family during Golden Week, either visiting relatives in their hometown or going abroad during one of only two or three periods when they can get more than just a few consecutive days off from work).

Thanks again.
Cheers guys for the constructive (and well-informed) comments! Even if we still disagree on certain points it's good to see we agree on many others. I agree that there's not enough transparency in the industry: I don't know if you saw Oliver's recent post on but I agree wholeheartedly with him that we need more actual truths and less marketing. Unfortunately the big players rely so much on volume that marketing is paramount, whilst the smaller players (i.e. the IB and importer/exporter/distributors like TWE and LMDW)
don't have the time to put what they know to the public, at least not always in the most universally accepted way, i.e. in English and on the net..

I understand all you say about pricing, but I still remain fundamentally convinced that the high prices of Karuizawa as it is sold in Europe are more justified than the high prices of Ardbeg, Highland Park etc. if only because of the combination of the time it took to secure the stock, the financial investment necessary to buy it, the planning required to move it from one distillery to another, the very small number of industry players capable of buying the bottles, explaining the product to their customers and then selling it to them, not to mention the problem of not being able to sell in the market of origin and being forced to sell abroad at a time when the yen-euro exchange rate is at an all-time high and governments across Europe are responding to centuries of economic incompetence by raising taxes right left and centre!!! These are all problems (with the exception of the latter, obviously) which no Scottish distiller or bottler has had to face in a very long time, if ever at all. On the subject, has anyone been following prices of Karuizawa in Taiwan (yes, a lot of Karuizawa is sold there, it doesn't all get sent to Europe)? I speak Japanese, not Chinese, so I've never been able to check, but it would be interesting to know, if only to compare eith prices in Europe...

You're right that there is an enormous amount of negativity on various forums, but it does tend to come from those who have no direct access to products like Karuizawa, and consequently have to pass through companies like TWE or LMDW, incurring extra expenses, potential problems of delivery and stock issues, all causing frustration and anger. Or else from amateurs of independent bottlers who expect to be able to buy Karuizawa and the same prices as Signatory Vintage, Gordon & MacPhail or others like The Whisky Agency and The Nectar. I don't want to say they are all wrong - sonetimes their criticisms are bang on - but to people in the industry the constant assumption that we are all conspiring to fill our pockets, monopolise the market and block out competitors can be very depressing (remember the Eigashima debacle?!). Believe me, to do all of that would require far more coordination of effort, forward planning and rigour than small companies like LMDW or Number One Drinks are capable!

There's a lot I don't know, there's a lot I'm sure Number One Drinks don't know either, and there's quite possibly a lot Kirin doesn't know or understand but did anyway just because...! But anyway, I'm not hear to sing the praises of any one company, just to try snd communicate my own vision from "the inside" and to provide a little transparency. After all, if the little guys are to avoid being eaten up by the big guys, I don't think we have the choice!
Nicholas, your latest response has got me thinking about various things in a new light. It's true that sometimes as consumers we tend to only consider the consumer's point of view (just like businesses only tend to see things from their point of view). I am convinced more openness and technically specific information (rather than impressions and superlatives) would help close the divide considerably, and lead to a better mutual understanding.

One specific question I have is: would there be a way around the problem that people in Japan cannot buy Karuizawa anymore? At the moment, there are several No.1 Drinks Karuizawas (for the European market) on Japanese auction sites and the prices are so incredibly high because in addition to all the factors you mentioned in your post (to get the bottles to retailers in Europe), you have to calculate the added cost of having bottles shipped back to Japan, and the auction seller's intention to make a bit of extra profit. Would it be possible, for example, for No. 1 Drinks to keep a certain number of cases here in Japan - and have a special arrangement (for example with LMDW and/or TWE) that customers living in Japan would simply have their bottles shipped from Japan. That way, they are still sold abroad, but they aren't physically abroad. Maybe that's skirting the law, but if it were possible in a way that's legal, it would mean that people in Japan (fast-movers, I guess, because I'm sure the allocation would sell out in no time) have access to one of the prime whiskies from their country again.
Hi Stefan,

I certainly agree with you about the need for openness and I can only hope that I've been of some small degree of help in that regard. After all, as I've said before elsewhere, it would be a real shame if whisky were to go the way of cognac and rely entirely on selling over-priced products of obscure origin to ignorant but wealthy clients....

I'm afraid it would be difficult for Number One Drinks to openly offer clients the kind of service you mentioned. I know quite a few bottles do go back to Japan, however: we regularly have Japanese barmen come to visit us in Paris to buy special bottles for their bars, and first internet orders of our last batch of Karuizawa were from Japan. So, perhaps it would be at least possible for us to advertise which bars have bottles so that people in Japan can at least know where to go to taste. Anyway, it's somthing I'll look into.

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