Ah, the fabled Karuizawa distillery. Established in 1955, Karuizawa was one of the early pioneers of Japanese whisky production. Unusually for a Japanese whisky maker, they focused mainly on sherry cask aging. It was always a relatively small operation however, and production was eventually mothballed in 2000 (with the distillery permanently closing in 2011).
Karuizawa was located in a small town on the slopes of an active volcano, Mount Asama. Coming from the end of production, this Karuizawa Asama expression is a multi-vintage bottling of 77 casks from the final 1999 and 2000 vintages. It was bottled in 2012 by the company that bought out all the remaining casks when the distillery closed, Number One Drinks in the UK. Sadly, this is the likely the last Karuizawa release we are ever going to see. Note that this edition is different from an earlier Spirit of Asama release, through The Whisky Exchange.
I believe Karuizawa Asama was mainly released in Europe. It is bottled at 46% ABV, and the casks used were predominantly sherry butts (although some bourbon casks may have been included). As opposed to the expensive final age-statement Karuizawas produced under their own name, this Asama expression was initially sold at a budget price (for Karuizawa stock, that is). Since then, prices for the few remaining Asama bottles have skyrocketed (which is why it currently earns a $$$$$+ in my database).
But somehow, the Dr Jekyll’s pub in Oslo, Norway, recently managed to get some in at the original low price. Rather than gouge their customers, they offered it at 137 NOK (just over $21 CAD) for a standard 4 cl (1.35 oz) pour. That puts it at the same price point as an entry-level Scottish malt in the bar (note that liquor in Norway is among the most heavily taxed in Europe). I must say, even the bartenders were pretty surprised when they rang it up for me – all the other Karuizawas they have (including several OBs and a custom cask just for Dr Jekyll’s) are in the 400-800 NOK range (i.e., $65-$130 CAD a shot)!
I don’t track many Karuizawa vintages in my database, given their rarity and cost. But here’s how Asama compares to some other Japanese whiskies (especially those with some sherry finishing).
Hakushu Sherry Cask: 8.96 ± 0.43 on 7 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt The Joker: 9.24 ± 0.22 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.64 ± 0.27 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Karuizawa 1990 Sherry Butt: 9.00 ± 0.30 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Karuizawa Asama Vintages 1999-2000: 8.63 ± 0.44 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.81 ± 0.40 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve: 8.63 ± 0.32 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Yamazaki Puncheon: 8.63 ± 0.23 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
Yamazaki Sherry Cask (all vintages): 9.07 ± 0.30 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Yamazaki 18yo: 9.14 ± 0.21 on 20 reviews ($$$$$)
There is clearly higher than usual variation in reviews of this particular Asama whisky (as there are with a couple of the other sherry cask finished Japanese whiskies). That’s always an interesting feature to explore further, and I’ll come back to this point at the end of the review.
Let’s see what I find in the glass:
Nose: Now that’s a bit different! You get the obvious hit of sherry (with figs, raisins, and nuts), but with attenuated smokey notes (spent matchsticks, extinguished campfire) and just a slight touch of peat. Very much a rancio profile – how odd for a Japanese whisky. Layered, but in a really unusual way that is hard to describe (“atypical” was the first comment in my shorthand tasting notes). A touch of lemon. Some salt. Slightly floral (hint of apple blossoms). Really distinctive – the closest thing in my experience would be some independent bottlings of Highland Park.
Palate: Like the nose, complex and layered. Definitely a drier type of sherry here, with dried fruits dominating. I do get some sweet syrupy notes however (brown sugar mainly, touch of maple). Spent matchsticks again (I think some people describe this dry smokey note as “gunpowder”). Chewy texture, great mouthfeel. No real burn to speak of. Certainly leaves a very favourable initial impression in the mouth – you don’t want to swallow! Doesn’t need any water, but a small amount brings up the sweetness slightly without affecting the other characteristics.
Finish: Nice and long, with slow lingering smoke. No real bitterness to my taste buds (YMMV, see comments below). Citrusy, but not a lot of variety on the fruit front, just a lingering sweetness (i.e., more juicy fruit gum than actual fruits). A bit of tobacco and leather. A touch more complexity here would have made it outstanding, but it is still excellent for the Japanese class.
A quality dram through and through. Its atypical-ness is something you are either likely to love (as I do), or feel frustrated by (i.e., it could seem “unbalanced” to some). I wish I could find a bottle for what the pub paid for it – but that’s highly wishful thinking. Instead, I made do with going back to Dr Jekyll’s the next night and having a second pour. 🙂
Never having expected to try it, I didn’t know much about this one ahead of time. As such, it is ironic that I had just finished the Mortlach 18 year old in the bar before trying Asama. Based on my earlier review of the Mortlach Rare Old, my description of the Asama here is similar to the profile that I would have expected from the Mortlach. But the Asama blew it out of the water on all fronts – nose, palate and finish. The Mortlach just seemed “closed” and toned down to me in direct comparison.
Those who are sensitive to sulphury notes may find the Asama a bit off-putting. As a discussed in the Mortlach Rare Old review, sensitivity to this “biological danger signal” is quite variable among different genetic populations. I suspect some of the sherry casks used here may have suffered from over-sulphuring. To me, that just introduced a distinctive character, but YMMV.
As you would expect give the above, variation among reviewers for this one is high. Like me, Serge of Whisky Fun loves it. Michio of Japan Whisky Reviews and My Annoying Opinions are conflicted on this one, and both give it lower than typical scores. The guys at Quebec Whisky are a good example the the range on this one: top marks from Patrick, above-average scores from Andre and Martin, and a low score from RV. If you get the chance to try it yourself, I highly recommend you give it shot.