Today, we are delighted to be the breakers of some huge news in the Japanese whisky industry that is sure to excite millions of fans around the globe – The legendary Karuizawa Distillery is coming back, and they are about to begin production!
The original Karuizawa Whisky Distillery, which sat just outside of Karuizawa, in the neighbouring town of Miyota, was sadly mothballed in 2000, with the ‘silent period’ of the late 1980s and early ‘90s leaving them struggling to continue distilling due to a lack of local and global demand for Japanese whisky.
In an unfortunate twist of fate, the Japanese whisky industry exploded onto international markets some five years later, when the Yamazaki 12 picked up a gold award at the International Spirits Challenge. But, sadly, it was too little too late for the Karuizawa Distillery.
Over the next two decades, the remaining casks of precious Karuizawa liquid would go on to become some of the most sought after in the entire world thanks to their signature, rich sherried style and their new found rarity. Today, Karuizawa single malt whiskies sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auction houses around the globe, as collectors vie to get their hands on what precious little liquid remains from this legend of Japanese whisky.
The New Karuizawa Distillery
Now, some 21 years after the initial closure, the Karuizawa Distillery is set to come back, and they have even hired some of the original staff in a bid to recreate the long lost precious single malt whisky of Karuizawa.
This time, the distillery was built by Mr Shigeru Totsuka-san, and his investors. It is situated in the town of Karuizawa itself, known for its stunning year round vistas that range from vibrant green and yellow forests in the summer months to gleaming snow covered peaks that attract skiers from around the globe in the winter.
In a bid to find out more about this exciting venture, I caught up with distillery owner, Mr Totsuka-San and his Master Distiller Nakazato-san, who worked at the original Karuizawa Distillery.
Mr Totsuka-san started by telling me how this dream got started: “I moved back from Tokyo to work for the family business – a sake distillery – in 1999 and I was in charge of making deliveries to Karuizawa. I loved the area and always dreamt of building a whisky distillery there. This was not necessarily going to be the Karuizawa Distillery, because that existed at the time, but I wanted to build a whisky distillery.”
It would be over two decades before Totsuka-san would finally get the opportunity to realise his dream, and when the opportunity arose to build the Karuizawa Distillery, and do it in his favourite town, he jumped at the chance.
Totsuka-san was well aware of the long, rich legacy that the Karuizawa Distillery name carries with it, and so he knew he would need to hire the very best Master Distillers in order to protect this legacy and ensure that only the finest liquid is bottled and released under the Karuizawa brand name.
He hired ex-Mercian Karuizawa Distillery Master Distiller Osami Uchibori as an advisor and brought former Karuizawa distiller Yoshiyuki Nakazato on as Master Distiller.
He stated, “The timing could not have been better for setting up the new Kariuzawa Whisky Distillery. Uchibori-san, who made the original Karuizawa whisky, had just retired from another whisky-maker and had moved back to Karuizawa. I was good friends with him for a long time, so it was easy to ask him to come on board.”
“But as Uchibori-san is quite old, he said he would prefer to be an advisor, so he then brought Nakazato-san to the distillery. Of course, they worked together at the original Karuizawa Distillery.”
With two veterans of the original Karuizawa Distillery on board, things are set up nicely for the new Karuizawa Distillery to produce some outstanding liquid. But what equipment and ingredients will they be using? Does it differ from what they used all of those years ago and how confident are they of being able to produce whisky of the quality they did back then?
Master Distiller, Nakazato-san, told me, “The stills are slightly different than the ones we used to use – they are quite a bit bigger and the lyne arms are less tapered, so there are small differences like that, but most of the equipment is the same. The barley we are using is a blend from Japan, Scotland, Belgium and Australia, and the Japan portion of that will increase next year when we begin growing our own barley on the field next to our distillery.
We have already made our first test batch of new-make to get the equipment up and running, which we didn’t expect much from, but I was surprised by how good it was. It was delicious, so that makes us very confident about the future.”
Of course, Karuizawa whisky is most famous for its rich, sherried style resulting in a deep, dark colour and a whole array of fruity and spicy aromas and flavours that are hard to rival. Will the new Karuizawa Distillery also be focused on sherry cask whisky?
Totsuka said, “Our first goal is to make whisky that is very similar to the old Karuizawa whisky, to continue that tradition, and then we may challenge other offerings, but our first goal is definitely to make whisky that is as good as the old Karuizawa whisky, using the person who made it, similar casks, similar stills etc. We want to create some of the very best single malt in Japan.”
“We have already sourced a large number of top quality sherry casks from Spain. Initially, we are using only sherry casks. What’s more, all of these casks will sit for a minimum of 10 years – no single malt will be released before then.”
No single malt whisky before 10 Years Old means we will be waiting a while to get our lips around some of the precious liquid from the new Karuizawa Distillery, but it also tells us the team that Totsuka-san has put together are dedicated to protecting the legacy of the Karuizawa Distillery, and that they are not willing to rush the job.
Committing to maturing single malt whisky for this long before releasing it to the public is somewhat unusual for a new distillery in Japan, with many choosing to release new-make spirit in the early days, before allowing customers to try their whisky as soon as it is officially single malt at 3 years old.
Is this something they thought about doing?
Totsuka told me, “There will be no new-make releases. We decided that we want to lay the whisky down for a good number of years before allowing any onto the market. We are seriously considering doing some world blended releases at 3, 5 and 7 years old, where we would import some whisky from Scotland or Ireland and blend it with some of our own whisky, but we are still undecided on that.”
Totsuka-san also told me that when they do come to releasing their single malt whisky, 10 years from now, they plan on releasing small batch and single cask whiskies, and are unlikely to have a core range release that is readily available.
Overall, it’s an incredibly exciting venture that is set up nicely to succeed. With a fantastic team on board in the form of highly successful Master Distillers and advisors, who exhibit a dedication to protect what came before them, and a lack of any rush to do so, they have all of the necessary ingredients to be a brilliant Japanese whisky distillery.
Partnering With dekanta
As if that wasn’t enough to get everyone excited, we’re also absolutely delighted to announce that dekanta have officially partnered with the Karuizawa Distillery. This will see us work together in the coming years to release outstanding bottlings that continue the legacy of Karuizawa whisky.
We are honoured to work with such a promising and committed distillery and we cannot wait to bring you all of the updates, news and exciting offers from the new Karuizawa Distillery along the way.
On the partnership, Mr Totsuka-san said, “We wanted to partner with someone who is able to do premium, high-end bottlings of fantastic whisky because we want to protect the Karuizawa brand and ensure it is always regarded as the best. I think dekanta is the best partner for doing this on an international level.”