Karuizawa is a lost whisky distillery in Japan. Despite producing whisky of the very finest quality, it closed in 2001. In the years since, Karuizawa single malt whiskies have become collectors items and bottles often change hands at auction for thousands of pounds.
Karuizawa was often described as the Japanese whisky closest in style to Scotch. The spirit was known for its floral scent and was often matured in ex-sherry casks. This imbued the whisky with notes of dried fruits, leather and walnut. Whiskey barrels from the USA gave notes of toffee and caramel.
Karuizawa was capable of producing some 150,000 litres per year. The distillery was equipped with four Japanese-made pot stills but only three were used to make whisky. The fourth distilled grape brandy.
100% of the distillery’s barley requirement was imported from Scotland. A particular barley strain known as Golden Promise was chosen as it gave the spirit an oily texture that couldn’t be achieved with other varieties. This created a spirit more suited to long-term maturation for several years in ex-sherry casks.
In the 1990s Karuizawa stopped producing peated whisky. This was an attempt to satisfy the changing tastes of Japanese consumers but ultimately failed to save the distillery.
In 1934 Suzuki Chuji founded the Showa Brewing Corp and established a factory in Kawasaki. There he began brewing sake from soya beans.
In 1955 the company established a distillery in the holiday resort town of Karuizawa at the foot of Mount Asama. They began to produce whisky almost immediately. At that time it was difficult to secure a steady supply of barley but in 1958 import restrictions were lifted. They began to import Golden Promise barley from Scotland. The same variety was used throughout the distillery’s life.
By 1959 Karuizawa was producing a Scottish style of whisky, matured in ex-sherry casks from Spain. The majority of their spirit was used for blended whiskies until 1977 when a change in ownership saw more of a focus on single malt production. The distillery was renamed Ocean Karuizawa and the malt began to appear under the Ocean label in the 1980s. The malt earned a reputation in its homeland but little was known of it elsewhere.
In 1990 the business was acquired by Mercian which in turn was taken over by Kirin. By the end of the century however, Japan’s economy was in decline and the new owners decided to mothball Karuizawa in 2001. The closure became final in 2011 when the distilling license was returned. All equipment was sold and the buildings completely demolished in 2016.
Though nothing had been produced since 2001, a small amount of whisky remained. This surviving stock was purchased by UK-based Number One Drinks in 2011. They began importing into Europe and their Vintage Series gained the whisky new appreciation around the world. In 2013 they released the oldest bottle to date. The 1960 single cask was limited to just 41 bottles and carried a RRP of £12,500.
Today it’s believed all remaining stocks are privately owned. It’s unclear when or if they will ever be bottled. New releases are certainly rare but still appear occasionally. With each new bottling however, we come a little closer to the final end of this most legendary of old Japanese spirits.