Karuizawa – Japan’s Smallest Distillery, Closed in 2000
Founded in 1955, Karuizawa was known as the smallest distillery in Japan, aiming to produce wines in the style of Macallan. However the owners decided to mothball the distillery in 2000 and by 2011 all of the original equipment had been sold on. By 2016 the distillery had been completely demolished. However, it is the years since its closure that have seen it become one of the most sought-after and expensive whiskies on the market.
Named after the town of Karuizawa, the distillery was located around two hours from Tokyo on the side of Mount Asama, an active volcano. The distillery had small stills and aged their spirit in Sherry casks while using 100% imported Scottish barley of the Golden Promise variety. Wooden washbacks were also used and as with Scottish distilleries at the time, Karuizawa’s main focus was initially on producing whisky for blending. It wasn’t until 1976 that the first single malt was bottled.
Karuizawa is noted for its high ABV
Its location on the side of Mount Asama saw the temperature and humidity combine to form a regular mist. This meant that the evaporation of water was happening before the evaporation of alcohol and resulted in concentrated, higher-abv whiskies. One of the truly unique characteristics of the spirit and one that has allowed the long ageing. With cold winters and humid summers, maturation of the spirit was glacial, reflected by the array of aged single casks that have been bottled since.
Saving the final 364 barrels
When the distillery closed, there were still barrels full of whisky. It is thanks to the Number One Drinks Company, founded by Marcin Miller and David Croll that the legacy of Karuizawa was preserved. They purchased the final 364 barrels and became the sole distributor. Number One Drinks then sold on the casks to Eric Huang in 2011, a Taiwanese whisky collector who in turn became the largest holder of Karuizawa casks. Unconfirmed figures put Huang’s holdings in 2018 at just 20 casks, with a smattering of other owners having 5 casks. Huang released ‘The Last Masterpiece’ in 2022. This could well signal that his final cask has been bottled (read on for more information on this final release).
It is not known how many casks remain unbottled, but we can be sure there are not many, if any at all!
Iconic Karuizawa Bottlings
The Mirrored Geisha Series
The Mirrored Geisha series has seen ten pairs of releases featuring single cask bottlings of two differing ages. With the final pair, the recently released Platinum Geisha, the collection is now complete. The iconic labels were designed by Elixir Distillers Raj Chavda who bottled the set on behalf of The Whisky Exchange. The series was designed to celebrate the skill, beauty and tradition of both the geisha and the Karuizawa distillery.
The First Geishas
The Aika Geishsas
The Golden Geishas
The Emerald Geishas
The Murasaki Geishas
The Sapphire Geisgas
The Pearl Geishas
The Sapphire Geishas
The Ruby Geishas
The Platinum Geishas – Final Release
1960 Karuizawa 52 Year Old Cask #5627 Zodiac Rat
This bottle set a record in 2020. It became the most expensive Japanese whisky ever sold at auction when it went for GBP 363k. This was more than twice the pre-sale estimate. It was one of only 41 bottles produced and is the oldest bottling from the distillery. Each bottle from the set is named after the figurine that hangs around the neck of the bottle so you will see other incarnations of this bottling aside from ‘Zodiac Rat’.
Karuizawa 50 Year Old 1970 The Last Masterpiece
Eric Huang’s final cask was due to be released to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, but the global situation at the time meant that didn’t happen. However, the final release, this 50 year old single cask, ran to just 211 bottles. One was sold as Karuizawa’s first NFT through blockbar.com. This particular NFT bottle also featured an exclusive label created by artist Souun Takeda, one of the most renowned calligraphers in Japan. The whisky was distilled in 1970 and bottled in 2020 from a single Sherry cask #6017.
To read about some other iconic distilleries, please click here.
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