Most people are familiar with the three mainstream whisky distilleries in Japan: Yoichi, Shimamoto, and Hokuto. But mention Karuizawa and it will only ring a bell for those in the know. It is situated at the high plains on the foot of Mount Asama, which happens to be an active volcano. The predominantly cool area sees a breezy summer and snowy winter — which became the basis for the Karuizawa whiskies. However, they were not always this popular.
It was in 1956 that Karuizawa established its first whisky distillery, under the name Ocean. It wasn’t a great time for Japanese whisky — the world was not ready for it, and malt was difficult to procure. Then, the distillery began importing barley from the UK and started producing Scotch-style whiskies matured in sherry casks. In 1977, the distillery underwent a name change and began focusing on single malts and blends. The Karuizawa single malts enjoyed a relative success within Japan in the 80s and 90s, but alas closed down in 2001. A change of owner gave the Karuizawa distillery back its life, but that didn’t last for long either, because the distillery shut down permanently in 2016.
Similar to how a painting is only worth more after the artist’s death, the Karuizawa whiskies only began enjoying international success after 2007. It was when independent bottler Number One Drinks began bottling single casks of whisky and bringing them over to Europe that the international crowd began to sit up and take notice of what was, alas, now a ghost distillery. Now, there are only a few casks from Karuizawa left and they are all privately owned. When they reach peak maturity, they will be bottled and sold for presumably a hefty price.
This time around, the Karuizawa Murasaki Geisha series was released by The Whisky Exchange. It’s the third bottling that they’re doing, with the first two being the Gold Geisha and the Emerald Geisha. Murasaki is Japanese for “Imperial Purple”, which explains the purple label of the bottle. There are two variants from the Karuizawa Murasaki Geisha series: a 29-year-old and a 31-year-old whisky. Both are aged in sherry casks and are limited to only 60 bottles per option. They were initially distilled in the 1980s and transferred into demijohns once they achieved peak maturity.
Why choose the geisha to represent these whiskies? Several reasons, among them being the mysterious allure and refinement these women portray, similar to the nuances of these single cask whiskies. Despite only having a two-year age gap, both the Karuizawa Murasaki Geisha whiskies have a very different flavour profile. The 29-year-old has a fruity flavour with a balanced freshness and hints of the sherry cask, while the 31-year-old is more savoury with slight fruity notes.
Thanks to its extremely limited quantity, the two whiskies were only released to buyers via balloting on The Whisky Exchange last month. Expect these bottles to resurface every now and then at a major auction — of course, for a much higher price.