Four Karuizawa Whiskies, Single Casks & Spirit of Asama

I’ve banged on about Japanese whisky enough by now to hopefully convert one or two people to its seductive and classy ways. Today, courtesy of samples from the Whisky Exchange, we have a stonking four-for-one review of whiskies that come from the Karuizawa distillery.

The Karuizawa distillery was was located in the Japanese Alps, which is a popular tourist spot. It started life as a vineyard, but began distilling whisky in 1956 – however, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, it ceased production in 2001 and finally closed in Autumn 2011. Marcin Miller of the Number One Drinks company told us, at the Whisky Show, that they tried to make an offer for ownership, but that was not to be – the parent company wasn’t interested. The distillery was finished.

A lot of the leftover stock from Karuizawa has been bought up by the folks at the Number One Drinks company, who have since done the world a favour and unleashed them. That brings me to a vertical tasting of four new whiskies from Karuizawa. (Even just typing that makes me realise that life is pretty sweet.) These will be on sale from the Whisky Exchange in the next few days – if not already, depending on when you read this post.

Karuizawa 1984 Sherry Cask #4021

Colour: full-on heather honey. Getting on for a black tea. On the nose: for such a strong whisky, you can really get your nose in the glass – though I’d recommend you did so with caution. A blast of treacle that falls softly into a cheesy note, that then progresses into an old leathery loveliness, like you’ve pressed your nose into a battered old Chesterfield sofa. In the distance: embers, burnt wood. A lot of subtleties for something so strong.

In the mouth: asdf;lkjwekasdfasd. In other words, oh sweet lord. This has everything turned up to 11. The balance is astounding, considering at first you get the same thick sweet blast as the nose, but it’s wrapped up in some other marvellous flavours: a savoury oak, toast, fruit cake, blackberry jam, some pleasing metallic notes. The way the sweet and savoury flavours seem to ping off each other is sublime. It’s not too viscous: there’s a lovely mouth-watering, medium weight in the mouth, and the finish is one heavy on the oak, leaving for a ridiculously long, warming finish. Ooh arrgh.

The dangerous thing about this is that – it’s bottled at 64.5% ABV, but very friendly at that strength.

Karuizawa Spirit of Asama (48%)

Presumably named after the active volcano. Colour: amber, apple juice. On the nose: very sweet, crisp and clean. Very fruity: apricots, figs, raisins. Floral.

In the mouth: a lightweight, simple, sweet, oak-spiced, but dangerously drinkable dram. Blackberries. Faint traces of custard and a little toffee, with a delightful teasing spice: nutmeg perhaps, but definitely pepper. A touch dry. It is perhaps a little two-dimensional compared to the nose and the finish is a little short, but a pleasant dram indeed.

Karuizawa Spirit of Asama (55%)

Colour: apple juice again, but ever so slightly darker. Perhaps a hint of rose in there too. On the nose: as above, sweet and clean, but there’s something else this time: more pronounced fruits perhaps, but juicy syrup and honey, more raisins, just a little more intense all round. Buttery, too.

In the mouth: oh now we’re talking. It’s an amazing layer of depth compared to the 48% – it makes for a longer finish, deeper, more mouth-watering flavours. This reminds me of a bloody good Glenfarclas, say the 15 Year Old. Immense chewy raisins and sultanas, gentle spices – touch of ginger, pepper, cinnamon. Absolutely like fruit cake, sweet and again, very crisp and clean. Also brings to mind the Oban Distiller’s Edition, though a touch thinner on the tongue perhaps. Orange on the finish.

No doubt in my mind that, of the two, you should be going for the 55%.

Karuizawa 1982 Bourbon Cask #8497

Colour: early sunset, lovely bold amber. On the nose: omph, a lovely light salty seaside tang, a bold maltiness and a strong, dominant note of wood, so much so that it comes across as peaty. Mysteriously, as soon as that thought begins to form, the smell plunges into some very sweet, leathery oak and the dying embers of the night.

In the mouth: wood and sugar balancing out very well – almost too well, not leaving much room for other flavours to present themselves at first. That oak, vanilla and spice dominates, though never overwhelms. Bitter chocolate. Hints of dark coffee. A light texture in the mouth gives it a fine elegance. Keep thinking long enough and there’s citrus and apple notes on the finish, some tropical fruits chipping in. Whatever the Karuizawa style, this one is surely going to confuse and delight a lot of whisky drinkers. Bottled at 46% – very friendly indeed.


There’s something here for everyone, so just do yourself a favour and try a slice of this distillery before it’s too late. Note that these will vary in price, and I think that the single casks will get on for £200. I think the Spirit of Asama whiskies will be a lot more affordable.

In my opinion, get the Karuizawa Spirit of Asama (55%) – I’ll certainly be getting a bottle. And if you can afford to go the extra mile, get the Karuizawa 1984 Cask #4021. They’re both delightfully sexy Japanese whiskies – and the 1984 is one of the best offerings from Japan that I’ve ever tasted.

Click the banner at the top if you want to go through to the Whisky Exchange.

Edit: two of them are now online. Here’s the 1984 and the 1982.

  1. raithrover says:

    Very interesting whiskies and I do enjoy the Japanese variety – its a shame it rarely reaches the UK and quite often when it does arrive, the prices are steep. I shouldn’t buy another bottle this year but if I do, then Karuizawa 1984 looks an interesting candidate.

    1. Malt says:

      Yes, the prices are a bit of a killer. I’ve toyed with the idea of shipping straight from Japan, but the one website I’ve found I don’t quite trust on prices, because I can’t understand its translations all that well!

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