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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Single Malt Report: Karuizawa Spirit of Asama 48%

Karuizawa was a little distillery at the base of Mount Asama, an active volcano.  Built by The Mercian Wine Company (or Daikoku-budoshu, I've now seen both referenced) to get in on the growing Japanese whisky industry in 1956, it had a small production (around 150,000 liters/year) and used Scottish Golden Promise barley.  It was mothballed in 2001, then officially closed in 2011.

Its often massively sherried whiskies are now very expensive, with many of their cask strength releases selling for four figures.  For instance, when K&L Wines got their hands on a pair of the dead distillery's single casks, the non-pre-sale prices of $250 (for a 14yo) and $800 (for a 32yo) were on the very low side of Karuizawa pricing.  [Ed. note: The pre-sale prices were even better, but I am loath to shill out that sort of money on a blind purchase.  I'd also had an opportunity for a wee sip of a pair of imported Karuizawas two years ago and was not entirely impressed -- but then again that was back in my sherry-hating days.]

In 2012, the bottler and distributor of the remaining Karuizawa casks, Number One Drinks Company, released a pair of Karuizawa bottlings (via The Whisky Exchange) that were comparatively cheap.  They're called "Spirit of Asama", one was released at 48%abv, the other at 55%abv.  According to the marketing story (and there always has to be a story), the whisky comes from 77 sherry casks that were filled in 1999 and 2000.  But here's the quirk.  There are another two releases called "Asama", bottled at 46%abv and 50.5%abv, that are also said to be from the same 77 sherry casks (and were married for an additional 12 months).  77 sherry casks should result in a lot of bottles; if they're sherry butts that could be almost 50,000 bottles.  So there was/is actually a considerable amount of Karuizawa left to be had.  I wonder how many more times they're going to go to that 77 barrel well, or has it run dry?  If anyone knows more about this Asama situation (facts please!) let me know and I'll update this info.

Despite the fact that The Whisky Exchange said the 48% and 55% bottlings were theirs exclusively, other retailers have been selling them since the release.  Master of Malt was one of those retailers.  I bought a MoM sample of the 55% and my friend Daniel contributed his sample (thank you!) of the 48% for the sake of scientific research.

Today, it's the 48%abv edition, the one on the right.  Tomorrow, the 55%.

Distillery: Karuizawa
Bottler: Number One Drinks Company
Distilled: 1999 and 2000
Bottled: 2012
Maturation: former sherry casks, 77 of them
Country: Japan
Alcohol by Volume: 48%

The color is a medium gold.  The nose is surprisingly light on sherry at first.  Lots of pine sap & needles, then grape jam and a hint of tar.  There's also a noticeable new-make-like mezcal note that I've found in peated whiskies half its age.  That's then met with a combination of pharty sulphur and farmy hot dirty hay.  The harsher notes fade back with time and are replaced with lots of sugar.  Perky creamy sherry shows up in the palate.  Lots of sugary prunes, light toffee.  It's reminiscent of Macallan 18yo but with more oranges and limes, and a thicker texture.  Lots of sugar and sherry in the finish.  Both candied and sour citrus lingers longest.

WITH WATER (at approx. 40%abv)
On the nose there's more farm, less pine.  More sugar, maybe orange candy?  The mezcal note is still there, as is the sulphur.  Citrus notes build with time.  Sherry on the palate again.  But now there's some dry tobacco and a nice bitterness slipping in.  The lightly bitter, tangy, sherried finish runs briefly.

There are two whiskies in one here.  The nose seems like a baby whisky from a refill sherry cask, while the palate feels like it's a first fill cask and acts more its age.  I haven't seen much mention about whether Karuizawa peated its malt but there's something in the nose that says peat moss.  Serge gives it a 2 on his 0-9 P meter, I'd up it to a 4 in the sniffer.

In my notes from the "With Water" section, I wrote "palate could be mistaken for a good Macallan".  In fact, I'd say the whisky improves with water.  Gasp!  When neat, the nose feels oddly half-baked and the palate has the sherry overwhelming the malt.  Hydrating the whisky helps even those things out.  Overall, there's nothing groundbreaking in this stuff but I would recommend it to Macallan fans (to drink, not to collect, damn it.)

Availability - Europe and Asia
Pricing - was $75ish pre-shipping when it came out, probably twice that price now
Rating - 83 (with water, a couple of points less without)


  1. Michael, I was a bit confused at that $250 price tag for the 14 year old Karuizawa because I could have sworn I paid around $145 for the pre-sell price. Then I read the note you added. Well, that's a bit sad that K&L charged even more if you missed the pre-order.

    I'm not opening my bottle at the moment because Karuizawa is a potential good investment at the moment (plus I've plenty of open bottles that need finishing). However this review does make me curious about the taste.

    1. By the way, Karuizawa Distillery was located at a high elevation spot on Mt. Asama which encouraged the evaporation of water over alcohol. As such the whisky maintains a high ABV even at older ages.

    2. Eric, I'm pretty sure they usually jack up the price after bottles come in, but it's usually more like $10-20. I get the point, but I'm hugely skeptical of buying K&L picks without independent reviews, which rules out pre-sales.

    3. Yeah, usually the pre-sale price comes in at $10 or so less than the final price, but the Davids bumped up the Karuizawas an additional $100 and $410.

      I'm assuming they did it because they could. Some people are really crazy for Karuizawa. While I understand the historical importance of some of these bottlings, I'm not yet sold on the quality as being super duper. I've read that Karuizawa, with their imported Scottish barley and specific processes was supposed to be the most Scotch-like of the Japanese whiskies -- to which I say, then why not just buy Scotch? Anyway, I have no doubt some of the old casks (with their high ABVs) are tasty; the two I'd sipped a couple years back were sherry bombs but I wasn't inspired to take any further notes.

      I'm thinking that the Spirit of Asamas aren't really representative of the hugely sherried classic Karuizawa style. They're not bad though and it would be cool if Number One dropped another release on our shores and kept the price south of $100. The quality would pummel the pricey baby Kavalans.

    4. Also, here are reviews of the 1999 K&L Karuizawa:

      Serge - http://www.whiskyfun.com/archivejune14-2-Karuizawa-Calvados-Glenlivet-Crown-Royal-Caol-Ila.html#300614 -- says it's good
      Sku (via LAWS) -- http://www.lawhiskeysociety.com/whiskey-profile/3031/Karuizawa-Noh-1999-number869-(K-and-L) -- says it's not good
      whiskybase members - http://whiskybase.com/whisky/53288/karuizawa-1999 -- think it's awesome

      Very different nosing/tasting notes between all of the reviews.

    5. I didn't know Sku was sensitive to sulfur. The other reviews I've seen on Reddit describe the 1999 as meaty/umami which does tell me there is some sulfur there.

    6. Yeah it does sound like there's some sulfur in there. The 48% version of Asama also had some noticeable sulfur, which is interesting since there must have been a lot of sulfured casks in a batch of 77 for that note to show so much.

      Jim Murray weeps. The rest of us snicker.