The Karuizawa Distillery was one of Japan’s most small-scaled operating distilleries, operated for less than half a century and it has remained dormant since the early 21st century. Despite this, Karuizawa Single Malt Whisky is the most sought-after single malt in Japan and one of the most international desired whiskies due to the spirit’s high quality and exceptional rareness, such as the Karuizawa 1960 Single Cask No. #5627, which is probably the most rare and expensive Japanese whisky sold on the market.
Karuizawa was established in shadows of the active volcano Mount Asama in the former Asama Vineyard in 1955 by the Mercian Wine Company (currently known as the Mercian Corporation), a Japanese retailer of wine, liquors and distilled spirits. The distillery was named after the adjacent city of Karuizawa, the home base of a mountain ski-resort very popular among the Japanese upper class.
Having the Karuizawa Distillery established, the Mercian Wine Company realized their ambition to create a single malt whisky following the traditional distiller methods used in Scotland yet combined with a representative Japanese twist. In order to achieve this, both the distillery’s equipment and the climatic circumstances under which the spirit’s maturing process took place had to be predominantly similar to those in Scotland. Karuizawa was built in the city of Mitoya, the Nagano Prefecture in Japan because of the region’s similarity in climatic temperatures to those in Scotland, even though Mitoya’s seasonal fluctuations were more contrasting at its peak during summer- and wintertime. Karuizawa has used small wooden washbacks for the fermentation and imported sherry casks from Spain to provide for the spirits aging process. Karuizawa Single Malt is definitely comparable to the style of the traditional Scotch single malt whisky, bus has maintained a distinctive Japanese whisky in its taste!
Until the year 1958, Japan’s importing restrictions and legislation didn’t allow the import of Scottish barley needed for the spirit’s production. The distilleries in Japan were obligated to buy the required, but scarce Japanese barley supplied by the Japanese government, this was a mandatory regulation. In 1958, import restrictions were lifted. Karuizawa started right away to import the higher-quality Golden Promise barley from Scotland. By making this strategic decision, it was the first Japanese distillery to import this necessity for the production process. Besides that, Karuizawa was the first Japanese distillery to export its whiskies across the border.
In that era, the international demand for Japanese whiskies wasn’t as substantial as desired sales wise. The high quality of the Karuizawa whiskies remained unknown to the general public and the expenses of producing Karuizawa Single Malt unfortunately didn’t meet the beneficial profits resulting from the distillery's sales. Karuizawa was mothballed in the year 2000 and ultimately shut down in 2011, resulting in the distillery’s premises to be dismantled and the distillery’s equipment to be sold. Most of Karuizawa’s equipment was sold to the Japanese independent bottler Gaiaflow, and the Kruizawa’s wooden casks were acquired by the Chichibu Distillery.
Remarkably enough, the following years the world became more and more appreciative with the Japanese whisky selection. Being such a high-class and limited released Japanese single malt, with only a few casks left in stock to release, Karuizawa has acquired a cult status. Until this day on, obtaining one of those rare vintage Karuizawa Single Malts is just something whisky collectors can only dream about.
Mark Watt, the general manager of independent bottler Cadenhead once said: “You want to sell your whisky? Then you should close your distillery”. Maybe, as far as the Karuizawa Distillery’s legacy is concerned, this is a nostalgic true story.Read more