J apanese whisky collectors and aficionados are well acquainted with rare bottles from Suntory’s two main distilleries, Hakushu and Yamazaki. Age-statement single malt expressions from these, particularly those matured for several decades from the latter, can be found for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the secondary market or at auction. But there’s another Japanese distillery known for its elusive, high-priced whiskies that is worth exploring – Karuizawa.
What makes this distillery’s whiskies so valuable is the fact that Karuizawa doesn’t exist anymore – it closed its doors in 2000 and was demolished 16 years later. The distillery was founded in the 1950s and mainly produced malt whisky for use in blends, most of which was aged in sherry casks. The quality of the whisky was considered to be excellent, but as the whisky industry declined in the 1980s and 90s so did the Karuizawa, which ultimately led to its demise. Over the past decade or so, however, collectors have discovered once again just how special Karuizawa whisky is. In 2013, Cask #5627, a 52-year-old whisky, sold for two million yen making it the oldest and most expensive up to that point (that record has been shattered in the years since). There are still valuable single cask Karuizawa bottlings out there, like the 50-year-old Cask #5132 that was distilled in 1963, or the two “Aqua of Life” half-century-old whiskies from the late 60s.
According to author and whisky expert Dave Broom, the fact that Karuizawa is a “ghost distillery” has a lot to do with the value of the whisky. “Karuizawa is the Japanese equivalent of Brora or Port Ellen,” he says, referring to two shuttered distilleries in Scotland. He says that the fact that there are only so many casks left of Karuizawa whisky left in the world is appealing to both collectors and investors. “The former bought into the Karuizawa story because the single casks were of good (and sometimes great) quality, and offered a different perspective to their understanding of Japanese whisky which, let's not forget, had only started to appear on the market in any volume from 2000.”
Karuizawa whisky differs from what is being made by the two main Japanese producers, Suntory and Nikka, and not just because these are entirely different whisky-making operations. Those companies operate multiple distilleries that make different styles of whisky which are blended together, but according to Broom, Karuizawa did things a bit differently. “Karuizawa followed a more Scottish approach – only making its whisky in one style,” he says. “It was intended for blending, and only a small amount was bottled as single malt – and it didn't sell because it was too heavy for the Japanese palate. The owners never intended these whiskies to exist.”
Thankfully, these whiskies do exist, and the demand has skyrocketed over the years – which is likely to continue as plans have been laid to resurrect the Karuizawa name with a brand-new distillery. The whisky will be a completely different animal, of course, but the legacy of this revered Japanese distillery lives on. And who knows, you might just see single cask releases from this new version of Karuizawa reach the lofty heights of the original whisky 50 years from now.