For single malt enthusiasts and collectors the world over the long wait is over; Number One Drinks Co launched Karuizawa 1960, Cask #5627 at the Tokyo International Bar Show on April 21st.
Cask #5627 is a sherry oak hogshead (250l) and the oldest in the inventory; each of the 41 bottles (53.2% ABV) tells a compelling story. Built in 1955 Karuizawa was created to make whisky in the most traditional manner possible; imported barley from Scotland, small stills and sherry casks for maturation all contributed to the house style, ‘stout like a soldier’. The whisky was distilled with a view to being a key component of the blends Mercian supplied to an increasingly interested domestic market. That it is available as a venerable single cask single malt is down to serendipity. The whisky industry is punctuated by periods of boom and bust and it was the latter which led to Karuizawa ceasing production in 2000. Kirin, a significant brewer, had acquired Mercian principally for its wine business rather than whisky.
The entire inventory would have been lost had the directors of Number One Drinks not entered into prolonged negotiations to secure the last remaining 364 casks of mature whisky. Number One Drinks has been handling single cask sales of Karuizawa since 2006 and was determined to ensure these precious casks of Japanese liquid history should be preserved. In August 2011 the stock acquisition was finalised. The casks were transported to Chichibu distillery and in February 2012 the directors of Number One Drinks arranged the last ever visit to Karuizawa distillery.
According to Malt Maniac, Serge Valentin; “Unlike virtually any other ‘world distillery’, Karuizawa has almost become ‘Scotch’, that is to say a name that’s now seen by most die-hard whisky geeks… as equivalent to big names such as Ardbeg, Lagavulin or Springbank. Or rather Brora or Port Ellen, as sadly, Karuizawa has been closed for more or less ten years.” He also refers to tasting the 1960 as “an emotional journey”. Described by Alice Lascelles in Financial Times, How To Spend It as “imposing and muscular, with dense flavours of prune, soot and torn bark, lifted unexpectedly by eucalyptus and a hint of wet, white rose petals, it is a fascinating drink. The understated bottle… is distinguished in a market that can be on the blingy side.” Mark Gillespie of Whiskycast which, with over half a million listeners, is the most popular whisky podcast in the world, states; “One of the finest whiskies I’ve ever tasted. 98/100.”
Whisky authority Dave Broom, who wrote the accompanying hand-made booklet, offers the following tasting notes;
Colour: Deep amber.
Nose: Subtle power. Rich, layered and perfumed and a little reminiscent of ancient Brandy de Jerez. Plenty of roasted spices and tobacco which shift into sandalwood incense. In time, some crystallised ginger emerges along with a savoury edge which brings to mind sun-dried tomato. It becomes more velvety as it continues to open, fluxing between damask rose and, at its height, a fungal, mossy note like old woods in autumn.
Palate: Very pure with the distillate still fresh and remarkably vibrant and the wood not overly dominant. The tannins, while there, simply give support to the dense black fruits, while the smoke begins to develop towards the back of the palate.
Finish: The smoke continues as we once again enter that mysterious forest. Like many old whiskies this is best neat – a glass of ice cold water on the side would be the ideal serve.
The oldest Japanese whisky in the world should be handled with the upmost respect. Designed and produced by Edinburgh studio, Contagious, each element of the packaging has been carefully crafted. The paper has been handmade by Norito Hasegawa, a third generation papermaker, and then embellished by multi-award winning calligrapher, Soji Nishimoto. Modelled on traditional Japanese puzzle boxes and handmade by an accomplished British cabinetmaker, the box has been adorned with pieces from the original ex-sherry cask head. Shipped over from Karuizawa, these plaques have then been branded by searing the cask with red hot metal. Each of the 41 bottles one has been faithfully named after the unique netsuke that hangs from the neck of the double-layered glass. All coordinated by the team in Edinburgh and Kiyo Humm, a consultant in London, this has been a collaboration of the finest artists to pay homage to one of the rarest and most prestigious of all Japanese whiskies.
Karuizawa 1960 Cask #5627 is available in the UK from The Whisky Exchange at £12,500 per bottle. Other distribution partners are La Maison du Whisky in France, Magny International in Taiwan and Whisk-e in Japan.