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The Enchanting Geishas of Karuizawa

Updated: Mar 5


Karuizawa single malt whisky The geisha series The whisky exchange

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


The Karuizawa Geisha Series is a collection of some of the most beautiful bottles of Japanese whisky available on the market. These bottles are highly sought after by collectors and whisky enthusiasts alike. The first two releases of the series were bottled exclusively by Number One Drinks Company for Speciality Drinks and its sister company, the Whisky Exchange. However, since the third release in 2017, the series has been bottled by Elixir Distillers, a company that recently made headlines with its acquisition of the Tormore distillery in Speyside. The Whisky Exchange, which was a sister company to Elixir Distillers, was sold to Pernod Ricard in September 2021.


Featuring stunning labels and rare spirits, the Karuizawa Geisha series has become one of the most highly collectable Japanese whisky series in the world. Though Geishas are commonly depicted on Karuizawa whisky bottles, the designs by Raj Chavda are considered by many to be the most beautiful.


The first Geishas were originally priced at around £350 each, but the latest releases can fetch a recommended retail price of up to £20,000 each. Some bottles are now sold for close to £40,000 each, which is a significant increase in value.



 

The Brief History of Karuizawa Distillery


Last look of Karuizawa distillery before demolition

Image by Dekanta


The Karuizawa distillery was founded in 1955 in Karuizawa, Miyota, and it was owned by Mercian Corporation under the Kirin Group. The objective of the distillery was to produce sherried-style whiskies inspired by the Macallan distillery in Scottish Speyside. Initially, the distillery focused on making whiskies that were suitable for blending, but in 1976, they started producing single malts - which became their signature.


Unfortunately, the small distillery did not experience the new rise of Japanese whisky and was mothballed in 2001. The sale of all distilling equipment in 2012, including the 4 stills (one of which found a new home at the Shizuoka distillery), followed. Finally, it was permanently demolished in 2016.


Over the years, many hopefuls have attempted to revive the now-famous distillery name in Karuizawa. With the likes of Komoro distillery by Karuizawa Distillers and Mercian Corporation, reigniting their desire to restart the distillation under the protected name, we might soon see a distillery producing whisky again called Karuizawa.



 

About The Bottlers


Number One Drink Company was established in 2006 by Marcin Miller and David Croll. The company specializes in bottling and distributing Japanese whiskies globally, including Chichibu, Karuizawa, Mars, and Hanyu. When the Karuizawa distillery shut down, Number One Drinks acquired all of its casks. The company also bottled the first two sets of Geishas, which were exclusively available at the Whisky Exchange in London, England.

Bottlers of Karuizawa single malt whisky

Elixir Distillers was established in 2017 and has gained a reputation as a blender, bottler, and brand creator. It is managed by brothers Sukhinder and Rajbir Singh, who are also the founders of the Whisky Exchange since 1999. Elixir Distillers obtained casks of Karuizawa whisky from Number One Drinks when they were established and continued bottling the same under their existing Geisha Series.


The Singh brothers have a keen eye for upcoming trends in the spirits industry and have built an impressive business portfolio that includes Elixir Distillers, The Whisky Show, whisky.auction, scotchwhisky.com, Speciality Brands, Speciality Drinks, and The Whisky Exchange. All but Elixir Distillers was sold to Pernod Ricard in 2021 for an undisclosed amount.


Rajbir and Sukhinder Singh former owners of the WHisky exhange

Image by Business India


Elixir Distillers has bottled several whisky brands, including The Single Malts of Scotland, The Elements of Islay, Port Askaig, and The Karuizawa Geisha Series.

The Elixir Distillers have been planning to establish a distillery in Islay for years. In early 2021, they received planning approval for a site in Islay, and in May 2022, they revealed the name of the distillery, which is Portintruan (pronounced Port-nah-truan). The distillery is scheduled to begin distillation in 2024.


To realize their dream of becoming distillers, Elixir Distillers purchased the Tormore Distillery from Pernod Ricard in 2022. This acquisition brings them one step closer to establishing a new era after The Whisky Exchange by acquiring land in Scotland with warehousing and gaining experience as a distiller.



 

The Journey of The Geisha Begins


The story of the Karuizawa Geishas began with Sukhinder Singh, a well-known whisky expert and collector. In the early 2010s, Number One Drinks approached Sukhinder with an opportunity to bottle an unknown Japanese distillery whisky called Karuizawa.


With the help of Raj Chavda, the now former creative director of TWE, the first two Geishas were released at the Whisky Show 2013 in London. Chavda, a member of the Royal Society of Art, is responsible for designing most of the whisky labels for the Whisky Exchange and Elixir Distillers, including recent holographic and UV-light responsive labels.


Raj Chavda Elixir distillers

Image by Elixir Distillers - Raj Chavda


The idea behind the design was to highlight the beauty of the Geisha, which sometimes could be misunderstood - much like Japanese whisky was at the time of the first releases. The first two Geishas are the only ones that feature more than just the face, with the sherry cask expression featuring a decorative fan held by the Geisha, and the bourbon cask expression displaying a Geisha holding a parasol.


All of the expressions are released as a couple and bottled at cask strength in a 70cl bottle. The first 2 sets came in a cardboard box, but Elixir Distillers started to present their bottlings in softly lined wooden boxes.


Boxes of Karuizawa geisha series

Image by House of Malt


Out of interest, we decided to include three prices associated with each product: retail price at the time of release, retail price now if available, and the latest price it was sold in an auction that we could find. We chose to do this to highlight the growing prices of collectable Japanese whiskies.



 

The First Release 2013:


Karuizawa 31 Years Old Sherry Cask

Cask #3555

Bottled at 60.6% ABV

Includes added colouring

Bottled by Number One Drinks Company for Speciality Drinks

Retail price at the time of release: £350

Latest price on Whisky Auctioneer: £5,600 December 2019


Karuizawa 30 Years Old Bourbon Cask

Cask #8606

Bottled at 55.8% ABV

Includes added colouring

Bottled by Number One Drinks Company for Speciality Drinks

Retail price at the time of release: £325

Latest price on Whisky Auctioneer: £5,000 August 2021


Karuizawa single malt Geisha series first release 2013

Image by The Whisky Exchange



 

The Second Release 2014 - Aika Geishas


The Aika Geishas were released at the Whisky Show 2014 and sold out at the event. The name Aika translates into a 'Love Song'. This second release introduced the mirror-like image of the Geisha hiding behind her fan, which has since been the trademark of the releases. This design is also known as Twin/ Geishas. After this release, the older expression of the pair has been placed on the mirrored right side with flowers in her hair.


Karuizawa 29 Years Old Bourbon Cask - Aika Geisha

Cask #8897

Bottled at 53.9% ABV

Includes added coloring

Bottled by Number One Drinks Company for Speciality Drinks

Retail price at the time of release: £375

Latest price on Whisky Auctioneer: £19,501 June 2022


Karuizawa 30 Years Old Sherry Cask - Aika Geisha

Cask #5347

Bottled at 58.2% ABV

Includes added coloring

Bottled by Number One Drinks Company for Speciality Drinks

Retail price at the time of release: £375

Latest price on Whisky Auctioneer: £19,501 June 2022


Karuizawa single malt Geisha series Aika second release 2014

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

The Third Release 2017 - Golden Geishas


With the newly established Elixir Distillers taking the lead, the Golden Geishas were released in 2017. They were the first bottlings to be assigned a premium color identity. The color gold was chosen to represent the wealth and prestige of the Karuizawa distillery. The label also pictures a Maiko - a young Geisha still in training - with her eyes closed.


Elixir Distillers chose to add more information on their labels, including vintage, and the number of bottles produced - engraved above the back label.


Karuizawa 31 Years Old Sherry Cask - Golden Geisha

Vintage 1984

Cask #3667

No. of Bottles 225

Bottled at 59.4% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: £2,500

Latest price on Scotch Whisky Auctions: £18,000 November 2021


Karuizawa 33 Years Old Bourbon Cask - Golden Geisha

Vintage 1981

Cask #3579

No. of Bottles 129

Bottled at 63.4% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: £2,750

Latest price on Whisky Auctioneer: £11,500 October 2019


Karuizawa single malt Geisha series Golden geishas third release 2017

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

The Fourth Release 2018 - Emerald Geishas


Released in 2018, the Emerald Geishas symbolize youth, vitality, and eternity. These two rare and old Karuizawa whiskies are considered to be rarer than emeralds - hence the name.


Karuizawa 33 Years Old Sherry Cask - Emerald Geisha

Cask #8908

No. of Bottles 170

Bottled at 54.4% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: £3,750

Latest price on Scotch Whisky Auctions: £14,500 May 2021


Karuizawa 35 Years Old Bourbon Cask - Emerald Geisha

Cask #8518

No. of Bottles 265

Bottled at 59.6% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: £3,750

Latest price on Scotch Whisky Auctions: £15,000 January 2022


Karuizawa single malt Geisha series Emerald geishas fourth release 2018

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

The Fifth Release 2018 - Murasaki Geishas


Murasaki - Japanese Imperial Purple - is a colour reserved for royalty and the highest members of society. The Murasaki labels depict a Maiko on her way to becoming a Geisha. A perfect colour for the royalty of Japanese whisky.


These two sherry cask whiskies have been distilled in the early 80s and to stop the maturation at a perfect point, put in demijohns waiting for the right time for bottling. The result was only 60 bottles each, making the Murasaki the smallest release size for the Geisha series to date.


Karuizawa 29 Years Old Sherry Cask - Murasaki Geisha

No. of Bottles 60

Bottled at 58.6% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: £6,000

Latest price on Whisky Auctioneer: £22,000 November 2021


Karuizawa 31 Years Old Sherry Cask - Murasaki Geisha

No. of Bottles 60

Bottled at 60.1% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: £6,000

Latest price on Whisky Auctioneer: £19,500 August 2021


Karuizawa single malt Geisha series fifth release Murasaki geishas 2018

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

The Sixth Release 2018 - Pearl Geishas


In Japanese folklore, it's believed that pearls are tears of mermaids and water nymphs. With the pearly white background, the Maiko Geisha is gaining wisdom and finding her femininity and beauty.


This release was mainly meant for the export market in Hong Kong, and private collectors, but we did see some of them made available for purchase in the UK high-end retailers for people blessed with wealth.


Karuizawa 37 Years Old Sherry Cask - Pearl Geisha

Cask #4056

No. of Bottles 71

Bottled at 56.9% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: Unknown

Retail price now on The Really Good Whisky Company: £40,800

Latest price on Scotch Whisky Auctions: £32,000 April 2021


Karuizawa 38 Years Old Sherry Cask - Pearl Geisha

Cask #4348

No. of Bottles 172

Bottled at 62.1% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: Unknown

Retail price now on Fine + Rare Wines: £21,200

Latest price on Whisky Auctioneer: £19,600 December 2021


Karuizawa single malt Geisha series sixth release Pearl geishas 2018

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

The Seventh Release 2020 - Sapphire Geishas


The Sapphire Geishas were released in 2020 and were inspired by the Sapphire Blue with its connection to the ocean, and divine power. With a mighty Japanese dragon in the background, this Maiko is gaining strength and age - just like Karuizawa.


Karuizawa 31 Years Old Sherry Cask - Sapphire Geisha

Cask #3558

No. of Bottles 146

Bottled at 58.9% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: £12,500

Retail price now on Mark Littler: £22,888

Latest price on Whisky Auctioneer: £14,000 February 2022


Karuizawa 36 Years Old Sherry Cask - Sapphire Geisha

Cask #5077

No. of Bottles 105

Bottled at 61.2% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: £15,000

Retail price now on Whisky World: £36,999,90

Latest price on Scotch Whisky Auctions: £20,000 September 2021


Karuizawa single malt Geisha series seventh release Sapphire geishas 2020

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

The Eighth Release 2021 - Ruby Geishas


The eighth-release duo, the Ruby Geishas, is a stunning sight. Released in 2021, this penultimate pair was inspired by ruby gemstones with a message of nobility, purity, and passion.


Karuizawa 34 Years Old Sherry Cask - Ruby Geisha

Cask #3668

No. of Bottles 247

Bottled at 58.5% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: £18,000

Retail price now at The Whisky World: £29,999.90

Latest price on Whisky Auctioneer: £18,500 February 2022


Karuizawa 38 Years Old Sherry Cask - Ruby Geisha

Cask #7582

No. of Bottles 223

Bottled at 54.1% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: £20,000

Retail price now on Whisky World: £34,999.90

Latest price on Whisky Hammer: £26,250 March 2022


Karuizawa single malt Geisha series eighth release ruby geishas 2021

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

The Ninth & Final Release 2022 - Platinum Geishas


The ninth and final pair was released in 2022 with both the 38-year-old and 40-year-old expressions aged exclusively in sherry casks.


Karuizawa 38 Years Old Sherry Cask - Platinum Geisha

Cask #4365

Vintage 1984

No. of Bottles 137

Bottled at 59.6% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: £ -

Retail price now at The Whisky World: £34,999.90

Latest price on Whisky Hammer: £25,000 March 2023


Karuizawa 40 Years Old Sherry Cask - Platinum Geisha

Cask #1650

Vinatge 1982

No. of Bottles 227

Bottled at 56.5% ABV

Bottled by Elixir Distillers

Retail price at the time of release: £ -

Retail price now on Whisky World: £39,999.90

Latest price on Whisky Auctioneer: £22,000 mid-2023


Karuizawa single malt Geisha series ninth final edition Platinum geishas 2022

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

'Not All Geishas Are Created Equal'


Like any product that becomes popular, collectible, and sought after, the Karuizawa Geishas are on the radar for replicas and fakes. One of the most questionable look-alikes was released in 2019 by Alexspirits.


so called fake geishas Burnside 30 year old replica-looking bottle

Original Image by Whisky Hammer


According to the label, the 30-year-old single malt whisky comes from Burnside Distillery. Burnside is a name associated with a teaspoon malt from Balvenie distillery in Speyside. The same alias can be used for the blended malt and a single malt from the same distillery. Burnside was also a distillery located in Campbeltown from 1825 to 1924.


Both whiskies from the pair, which undeniably resemble the Karuizawa Geishas, hold the same whisky inside - bottled at 46.8% ABV. But here's where it gets tricky. On the back label, there's a map of Scotland locating Speyside as the origin of the whisky. They've also been kind enough to give you the coordinates. All good right? Not quite. The coordinates 57 27 34.2N, and 30 07 51.0W lead you to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And as far as we know there aren't any distilleries there. (We even thought it might be a spelling mistake, but no matter the way we look at it the coordinates don't make any sense.)


Burnside 30 year old geisha bottling coordinates

Image by Catawiki/ Google Maps


Furthermore, the label states the bottler as Alexspirits G3 6EQ. The only information we could find about the company Alexspirits Limited is that it dissolved in 2021, and its address was in Baird Street in Glasgow. It is unclear if the company did any other bottlings, but definitely this 'Burnside Distillery Batch No.1' became the only Geisha bottled.


We are amazed that something like this was allowed to happen. Not only were the intentions of the bottler clear with their attempt to replicate an expensive bottling for personal gain, but to be allowed to bottle this whisky with so many label inconsistencies. The fact that the coordinates take you in the middle of the ocean makes us question everything else. Is it actually a single malt? Who is this Alex? And why, oh why? This bottle was clearly made with only one intention in mind - to deceive a consumer. Or maybe it was a joke in the begin with.

Burnside 30 year old geisha label

Image by Catawiki



The bottle states to be '1 of 300 bottles'. Does this mean that there are 150 sets since the bottles seem to be holding the same liquid? Nevertheless, these sets seem to be selling at auctions for nearly £1,500. The seller of the set in Catawiki is located in Taiwan, so we wouldn't rule out the possibility that the set was done with the Taiwanese and Asian markets in mind. But because there's such limited information about the bottling made available, there's no way of knowing.


We think that this type of replication of design shouldn't be allowed to enter auctions. Some people are entering the world of collecting and drinking whisky and might think they are buying something they're not. It also devalues the beauty of the original.


You might even think that 'at least I'm getting two bottles of 30-year-old Balvenie'. With so many inconsistencies we even have our doubts about that.


They say that an imitation is a form of flattering, but with these cheap-looking replications, we think this is flattery. But hey, if you have an extra £1,500 to invest in a gag gift then why not?

 

We would like to thank our knowledgeable anonymous source for providing us with the original retail prices for each Geisha. Thanks, Billy!



Keep checking the Whisky Ardvark for more interesting articles! #thewhiskyardvark #whiskyardvark


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