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A Brief History & The Resurrection of The Karuizawa Distillery

Updated: Mar 5


Karuizawa

Who hasn't heard about the legendary closed Japanese whisky distillery Karuizawa? With the rise of Japanese whisky's popularity in the mid-2010s, the Karuizawa distillery has become a legend in the industry with diminishing stocks and ever-growing prices. Only a few can afford to taste its golden nectar, and Karuizawa has managed to entice whisky lovers from all over the world due to its god-like status.


For years now, many people have been interested in bringing back the Karuizawa name. It's clear that with a demolished distillery, it's impossible to replicate the whisky once it is produced. But with a reputation held by the likes of Karuizawa, many have been hoping to tap into the fame by association with the talks of resurrecting the distillery. This article will look into some of the most well-known attempts and projects in which companies have involved themselves over the past few years.


But why was Karuizawa closed if it was so popular? That's the thing, it wasn't - but now it is. Let us investigate.



 

The Legend of Karuizawa


The Karuizawa distillery was founded in 1955 in Miyota in the foothills of an active volcano, Mount Asama (last eruption in 2004). Miyota is a small town in the Kitasaka District in Nagano Prefecture that's located only a stone's throw away from the resort town of Karuizawa.

Karuizawa Japanese distillery map

Original Image by Wikipedia - Edited For Karuizawa Distillery Location by The Whisky Ardvark


The distillery was built by Daikoku-Budoshu - a large wine and spirits producer - who already had established a winery in town. After the Second World War, getting hold of Scottish whiskies was tough. With the hope of distilling a single malt for the company's blend Ocean, the Karuizawa distillery started production in early 1957. With the Macallan whisky distillery in mind, Daikoku-Budoshu started to ship Golden Promise barley from Britain and sherry casks from Spain in 1958 when import restrictions were relaxed.


The distillery operated 4 pot stills - two pairs of 4,000-liter copper stills - and was the smallest whisky distillery in Japan at the time. Even though the whisky produced at Karuizawa was dark and full of character, it remained unknown to whisky drinkers as it was destined for blending.

Old whisky brands from Karuizawa Japanese whisky distillery

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



In 1962, Daikoku-Budoshu was taken over by Sanraku-Ocean, which would later become known as Mercian Corporation. In 1977, the new owners released the first Karuizawa single malt, although most of the whisky was still used for blends. Over the next couple of decades, the single malt brand gained a following in Japan, with only a minuscule amount destined for the export market. But producing whisky at a time when single malts weren't a popular choice turned out to be a blunder. Alongside the Hanyu distillery in 2000, Karuizawa was eventually mothballed.


Last look of Karuizawa whisky distillery before demolition

Image by Sunday's Grocery - Last Look of Karuizawa


The silent distillery and Mercian Corporation were absorbed into the Kirin Brewery Company in 2007. Number One Drinks Company started to export Karuizawa whiskies in 2006, and by 2007, the base price of a bottle of Karuizawa whisky distilled in the early 1980s was around £80. When the distillery was dismantled in 2006, Kirin planned to use the remaining Karuizawa whiskies for blending. Eric Huang, Sukhinder Singh from the Whisky Exchange, La Maison du Whisky, and Number One Drinks stepped in to save the casks from this misfortune.


In 2009, Number One Drinks bought all the remaining stock from Kirin, totalling 364 barrels. The distillery was permanently closed in 2011, and the distilling license expired. In 2012, all the distilling equipment was sold, and the site was flattened in 2016 leaving no trace of a once operational distillery behind. (Kirin surely regrets the move now.)


The stills from Karuizawa still live on. They were bought by Gaiaflow, and one of the stills was installed in their Shizuoka Distillery in 2017.


Did you know? In 2006, Ichiro Akuto - the owner of the Chichibu distillery - had a chance to distil a couple of runs at the Karuizawa distillery before Kirin Group purchased the site. This was the last time a spirit was distilled at the Karuizawa distillery.



 

'Crying Over Spilt Milk'


Since the closure of the Karuizawa distillery and the rise of Japanese whisky, Karuizawa whiskies have become extremely sought after. Number One Drinks bottled single-cask whiskies from Karuizawa until 2011 when they sold all the remaining stock to a Taiwanese whisky collector and bottler Eric Huang AKA Mr. Karuizawa. In 2018, Huang was reportedly the biggest owner of Karuizawa casks in the world - still possessing 20 casks to his name. The remaining casks are stored at the Chichibu Distillery under the watchful eye of Ichiro Akuto.

Eric Huang owner of casks of Karuizawa whisky casks

Image by Forbes - Eric Huang


Over the years, other independent bottlers have released their own Karuizawa bottlings. Most notably, Sukhinder Singh from The Whisky Exchange was one of the first fans of Karuizawa in Europe and managed to acquire multiple casks to be bottled exclusively for the Whisky Exchange and later under Elixir Distillers. Their most well-known Karuizawa bottlings were released under the Geisha series. Mr Singh's final release will be a 50-year-old Karuizawa, which will be made available shortly. The last 200 or so bottles from the same cask will be released in the next few years, 50 bottles at a time, with the current retail price at £50,000 each.


Sukhinder Singh elixir distillers

Image by Amex Essentials - Sukhinder Singh


Duncan ross serving Karuizawa 50yo at the Whisky Show 2022

Image by The Whisky Ardvark - Our Very Own Duncan Ross Serving the soon-to-be-released Karuizawa 50yo at the Whisky Show 2022.



The competition now has become of who will release the last cask and bottles of Karuizawa whisky. Mr Huang planned on releasing his last cask in 2020 but ultimately changed his mind. With Mr Singh's plan to stretch out his last cask over the years, we only have to wait and see who will be the last one standing.


We here at the Whisky Ardvark have been able to get confirmation from an extremely reliable source that the spirit Ichiro Akuto distilled in 2006 at the Karuizawa Distillery is still in his possession. We are unaware of how many casks he has or the types of casks the whisky is matured in, but it's safe to assume that Mr Akuto will be the last to own casks holding whisky distilled at the legendary distillery.


Even though all Karuizawa whiskies are seen as collectables, many of them reach five-figure numbers on the secondary market. The most expensive Karuizawa ever sold was auctioned in March 2020 at Sotheby's in London. 1 of only 41 bottles ever bottled, the Karuizawa 52-Year-Old Cask #5627 Zodiac Rat 1960 (Bot. 2013) fetched an eye-watering figure of £363,000 - twice the pre-sale estimate. For comparison, a similar expression (Bot. 2012 by Number One Drinks) sold for £77,250 in 2015 at Bonhams in Hong Kong.


Mr. Huang is the owner of all the known casks of Karuizawa left in the world (minus Ichiro's unknown collection). Most Karuizawa whiskies have already been bottled, and if not yet made available to purchase, sitting and waiting to be released and sold.


Karuizawa single malts from 1960

Images by Sotheby's & Bonham's Hong Kong



 

The Resurrections in The Name of Karuizawa


For years, there have been stories about men showing up at the original site of the Karuizawa distillery wanting to purchase it. Over the years, companies have been looking into resurrecting the legendary distillery with promises that haven't been met with action.


Many of them have stumbled upon a major issue with copyrighting since the name Karuizawa Distillery is still owned by Mercian under Kirin.


But without further ado, let's get to know the three major contenders in bringing back the Karuizawa name as a whisky-producing entity.



 

Komoro Distillery


Location: Komoro, Nagano

Announced: December 2020

Construction Stage: Started in July 2021 - Plan to Finish in Mid-2023

Owned by: Karuizawa Distillers

Signed to the Project: Ian Chang - Vice President & Master Distiller

Koji Shimaoka - President

Eddie Ludlow - Chief Educator

Amanda Ludlow - Brand Consultant

Kellie Du - Global Product Manager

Stills: Forsyths Copper Pot Stills


Komoro distillery plans by Karuizawa distillers

Image by nomunication.jp - Komoro Distillery Plan


In March 2020, people were surprised to learn that Ian Chang had left the Taiwanese Kavalan distillery. He learned how to make great whisky under the late great Jim Swan - for 12 years, to be exact. Mr Chang was offered many tempting opportunities in whisky, including as the head of a newly planned Pernod Ricard single malt whisky distillery in China.


In December 2020, the answer to why Chang left was revealed when Karuizawa resident Koji Shimaoka (former managing director of Citibank Japan) and Mr. Chang announced their joint venture into making whisky. The Komoro distillery would bring whisky-making back to the foothills of Mount Asama, with the construction starting in July 2021. They hope to finish building in mid-2023 and start production soon after.

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After years of looking at possible sites in Karuizawa, where the distillery was originally meant to be built, Koji Shimaoka decided to start looking for better opportunities in the neighbouring cities. The Komoro City site near Karuizawa was finally offered to him in the hopes of bringing revenue to the area.


The plans at the Komoro distillery include using multiple styles of casks (STR, Sherry, etc.), blending casks, and releasing age-statement whiskies. According to Mr Shimaoka, the distillery will only be making and distilling single malt whisky, unlike many other new Japanese whisky distilleries that gather revenue by selling new makes and gins. The Komoro project has been fully funded with a ~£13m budget, leaving them to concentrate on making the highest quality whisky possible. Eddie Ludlow from Whisky Lounge will also lead the on-site whisky academy - the KDI Academy - the first one in Japan to be attached to a distillery. The site will also include a visitor's centre.


Karuizawa Distillers plans to construct and open multiple new whisky distilleries in Japan in the future, maybe even in the town of Karuizawa. So, for sure, these are the guys to watch!


Karuizawa Distillers team Komoro Distillery Japanese whisky

Image by The Whisky Exchange Blog


But can the Komoro Distillery be deemed as the resurrection of the Karuizawa Distillery? Hardly, since the only thing it has in common is the name Karuizawa in their company.



 

Karuizawa Distillery - Doing The Ground Work


Location: Karuizawa, Nagano

Announced: November 2019

Construction Planned: Spring 2021

Owned by: Karuizawa Whisky Co., Ltd. under Totsuka Shuzo


Karuizawa Whisky Co - Shigeru Totsuka

Image by Karuizawa Whisky Co - Shigeru Totsuka


The plan for the new Karuizawa distillery was privately funded by the 16th-generation president of Totsuka Shuzo - Shigeru Totsuka. He established the Karuizawa Whisky Co in 2019, managed to acquire a 1.3-acre land in Karuizawa, and reserved a budget of ~£4.5m for the project, with plans of releasing his first whisky in 2024. It is unclear why the project halted, but Totsuka's attempt to go it alone didn't pay out. He soon found some new friends. Please see below.



 

Karuizawa Distillery


Location: Karuizawa, Nagano

Announced: December 2021

Construction Stage: Under Way

Owned by: Karuizawa Whisky Co (Totsuka Sake Brewery)

Signed to the Project: Osami Uchibori - Advisor to The Project

Yoshiyuki Nakazato - Master Distiller

Shigeru Totsuka - Director of Karuizawa Whisky Co. Ltd.


In December 2021, Mitsubishi Estate announced its interest in getting into whisky. With Mitsubishi's backing, Totsuka managed to make his dream of resurrecting the name Karuizawa Distillery, with a location in Karuizawa itself, true. They have also managed to recruit the ex-Mercian Karuizawa distillery Master Distiller Osami Uchibori in an advisory role and the former Karuizawa distiller Yoshiyuki Nakazato as a Master Distiller.


Karuizawa master distiller Osami Uchibori

Images by Karuizawa Whisky Co


The announcement raises questions due to the possible copyright issues of the name Karuizawa Distillery until you realise that Mercian under Kirin Group, who owned the distillery at the time of closing, is part of Mitsubishi Estate, which has always held the rights to the name. So, getting them on board was more than crucial. An agreement was signed by Mitsubishi Jisho Co., Ltd., Karuizawa Whisky Co., Ltd. (Totsuka from before), and Plan・Do・See Co., Ltd. to start the project in early 2022.


Karuizawa whisky logo

Image by laitimes.com - Announced New Karuizawa Logo


We have tried to find out the current state of the building plans but were unable to find any recent updates. In December 2021, it was announced that they plan on starting the construction within months, with the first spirits (new makes?) up for sale later in 2022. Seems like someone's in a hurry.


Location map new Karuizawa whisky distillery Japan

Karuizawa Whisky Distillery:

2785-318 Hochi, Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano 389-0113

Karuizawa Japan whisky distillery opens 2022

Is this the resurrection of the Karuizawa Distillery? Well, the original owners and people who used to make whisky at the distillery were involved, plus it had the same name. So it might as well be. If the new whisky will somewhat match, the old whisky remains to be seen.

 

Heard about an unsuccessful attempt to resurrect the Karuizawa Distillery? Let us know by emailing miona@thewhiskyardvark.com or in the comments below.



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