I was first introduced to Karuizawa during a brief introduction to Japanese whisky from Marcin Miller's Number One Drinks Stand at The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show back in 2012. Whilst the single cask releases are slightly beyond my budget there is a release that I can afford, their Spirit of Asama releases which I promised myself I would get a bottle one day.
The Karuizawa Distillery 1955-2000
Karuizawa was actually a vineyard in 1955 when then-owner Daikoku-budoshu decided to enter a Japanese whisky industry still in its infancy, and base a distillery in the shadow of active volcano, Mount Asama, an active volcano at 850 metres above sea level, and was the highest distillery in Japan. Distillation at the distillery ceased in 2000.
The distillery was tiny and the aim was traditional, small-scale production to create quality whiskies. Karuizawa used 100% Golden Promise barley, Oregon pine washbacks, small 4,00 litre pot stills and sherry casks sourced from Spain, and are said to be perhaps the closest you'll find to the Scottish malt style in Japan but they still have their own unique character.
Many of the younger casks distilled in in the final year of it's operation were vatted to create Spirit of Asama. I asked Marcin why we have two different strengths released and he told me that he bottled the first batch at 46% abv but when it went through the tasting panel at The Whisky Exchange, two variants were requested, one bottled at 48% abv and the other at 55% abv. You can read the full story from Billy on the TWE blog here
Whisky Discovery #210
Karuizawa Spirit of Asama (48% abv)
Japanese Single Malt
Circa £55.00 70cl
First tasted at The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show back in October 2012 at the beginning of a five dram Japanese whisky education with No.1 Drinks. I fairly certain both strengths were represented but by the time I had made my way to their stand in the last hour of the last day, I guess the higher strength variant must have run out.
So What Did I Think?
Having the colour of a rich Oloroso sherry you know this is going to be a bit of a sherry monster right from the start. Rich woody sherry notes are certainly present, but there's an earthiness to this too, damp, mossy wood came,to mind. Later chocolate notes develop alongside the nutty Oloroso
The sherry flavours play quite heavily on the palate too, and alongside the earthy oak wood tones there's a slight metallic note. It does however, come across as a savoury dram but finishes with the sherry dryness I was expecting. It certainly has a good length finish, leaving woody flavours but no hint of bitterness. The following morning the empty glass yields great chocolately notes.
Whisky Discovery #702
Karuizawa Spirit of Asama (55% abv)
Japanese Single Malt
Circa £75.00 70cl
I was fairly certain I'd tasted both versions of this at the Whisky Shows of 2012/13 but when i checked the Liquid Log, and double checked my show notes realised I hadn't! Fortunately both expressions were available from Master of Malt's 'Drinks by the Dram' miniatures and so was able to register this new Whisky Discovery and complete my notes.
So What Did I Think?
OK so there's just 7% more alcohol in this expression derived from the same batch of casks so I wasn't expecting the colour to be vastly different from the 48% abv version. Alongside each other in glasses it would be almost impossible to tell them apart from the colour!
The nose has a very similar profile, as expected, but this definitely seemed to have more chocolate flavours, albeit more powdery. The chocolate powder was spiced with cinnamon and allspice and there were stronger woody flavours.
Well you'd expect a similar profile for the palate too, and so it was, although I thought the wood spices were more dominant in this expression. The empty glass the following morning however was noticeably different, with more linseed putty notes.
I loved these two expressions, and if I was going to pick a favourite from them I think the 48% abv version got my vote. I re-tasted these two expressions back in February but never got to finish this blogpost at the time. I was reminded of this when I went to look to replace a bottle recently and noticed it had all gone! I wish I'd bought more at the time now as these bottles seem to have disappeared into history.
If you see one let me know as I'd love to revisit these again.