Karuizawa was Japan’s smallest whisky distillery, producing just 150,000 litres of spirit a year. Karuizawa whisky is rare, due to the low production capacity and the distillery prides itself on its use of traditional whisky making methods. They imported Golden Promise barley from Scotland, which was historically the most common barley used there and matured their whisky mostly in sherry casks imported from Spain. The water used in production was flowed through or over the volcanic lava rock and soil that surrounded the distillery, giving it a unique quality. Early releases were mostly blends appearing under the ‘Sanraku Ocean’ brand name. Later, Karuizawa became more well known and more whisky has been released, although the range was still small and usually just from single casks. It may occasionally be found under the ‘Tsutagura malt’ name. They were also distilled larger quantities of a brandy that is similar in style to Marc de Bourgogne.
The Mercian Wine Company decided to set up the Karuizawa distillery in 1955. The Japanese whisky industry was booming and they decided to join in. The location was chosen at Karuizawa, near to Miyota a town on the southern slopes of an active complex volcano, Mount Asama, in Kitasaku District , Nagano, as they felt it offered the closest climatic conditions to the Highlands of Scotland (although the summers are much hotter and the winters much colder at their peaks). Mercian owned a former vineyard and they decided to convert this into a small traditional distillery. These rustic buildings are still intact and the distillery remains one of the most picturesque in Japan, with the walls covered in ancient ivy plants. Production began in 1956 and in 1959, they became the first distillery to export whisky overseas. Most of the whisky produced was put into simple blends that were cheap and popular, with the first single malt being released in 1976. In 2007, Mercian sold Karuizawa to the Kirin Brewery Company, who also own the Fuji-Gotemba distillery. Sadly the new owner in 2000 decided to shut down the distillery. In 2000 it was mothballed, and closed in 2011. The land on which it had stood was sold in 2012. The remaining casks were all bought up from Mr Eric Huang and others, each one buying as many as they could. In the years that followed, in the hands of Huang, and the figures behind The Whisky Exchange, Number One Drinks, and La Maison du Whisky, Karuizawa whisky became the world’s most sought-after, rarest, and expensive whisky. Casks started being bottled, lessening each year. In 2011, Number One Drinks entrusted all their remaining casks to Huang, as they loved how he’d branded and promoted the ones under his portfolio. This move meant that Huang held the largest number of casks in the world, which is still a fact today. As it stands, Huang now owns approximately twenty Karuizawa casks. The other owners, combined, hold just over five.
Huang states that he doesn’t like to sell full casks. Owners tend to keep them, and they never reach the hands of collectors and fans. He prefers to bottle them himself and work with companies to create the best bottlings possible. Another reason is that Huang specializes in every single part of the whisky process, from start to finish, literally. He monitors his own, large number of casks, including the Karuizawa ones, which are stored at the Chichibu distillery under the watchful eye of the great Japanese whisky legend and distillery owner, Ichiro Akuto.
Huang will release the final cask of Karuizawa around the 2020 Olympics, which should be the last one in the world, at the time.The final bottling will be based on the concept of a final, resonating sound.
The newest Karuizawa release by Huang was the Karuizawa Vintage 1965 Cask 8852 (The streams of Time 1965).
Bottled in 2017, after aging in a sherry cask for more than 52 years, this release offers the opportunity to own an expression that is in a league of its own. This single cask expression was bottled from one of Karuizawa’s last remaing casks, making it a true piece of Japanese Whisky history. Just 150 bottles were released, making this one of the most treasured collectibles on the market. There is a little chance that a release of similar age will be offered for sale again, due to the scarcity of remaining casks, combined with surging demand.