Karuizawa “Spirit of Asama”
Dist. 1999/2000 Btl. 2012
750ml, 55% ABV
Amidst the backdrop of Mount Asama, which straddles both prefectures of Gunma and Nagano, once lived arguably the finest whiskey distillery Japan ever had. Like the properties of Yoichi and Yamazaki Kaurizawa dates back to the sake business of the early 1900’s. In 1934 Suzuki Chuji, son of the founder of the Ajinomoto brand, founded the Showa Brewing with in his father’s brand. By 1955 Suzuki had constructed his distillery to supplement the companies sake production.
Well capitalized and under sound management Suzuki didn’t release the first of his whiskies until 1976. Fueled by ample snow melt from Mt. Asama and taking advantage of cool year round climate the distillery used small copper pot stills for distillation. Stored in smaller barrels, going down to quarter casks, the storehouse of Karuizawa was also covered in ivy, which is said to have assisted in keeping the temperature and humidity at exactly the right levels.
The next 35 years were times of expansion, especially that of wine as the Ocean and Mercian brands came under the umbrella of Ajinomoto. Even after expanding into production of bottled fizzes and highballs in the 1970’s and 1980’s Karuizawa’s production was never expanded nor compromised.
In 1990 the company’s name was changed to Mercian and even still the Suzuki family owned the majority of shares. In 1997, however, the company was reworked and improved before being acquired as a subsidiary of Kirin Holdings in the mid-2000s. Although the shareholders are different, the company itself remains largely unchanged from its Ajinomoto origins. But Kirin could not sustain the premium whisky production, so the Karuizawa distillery and its sister distillery at Kawasaki closed in 2011.
One of Kaurizawa’s stills prior to their dismantel and sale in early 2012 (left). Storehouse of Kaurizawa in 2010. Note the stacking of barrels rarely exceeds 3 high to optomize humidity and tempature. A pratice rarely seen in the U.S. but one also embraced by Nikka’s Miyagikyo distillery outside of Sendai (right).
Suzuki’s patience and innovation, previously unseen in Japanese whiskey production, paid off ten fold as this small distillery was quickly recognized for its excellent distillate. Noted for their floral scent, sherry influence, and exceptional maturity, remaining bottles are extremely sought-after (many will exceed $10,000 in secondary and tertiary markets for single vintage releases). The “Spirit of Asama” bottlings allow consumers to taste the house style of Karuizawa from barrels (some 77) blended during some of the final years of production.