Distillery Focus

Carving out a niche (Karuizawa)

Karuizawa is one of Japan's smaller and lesser known distilleries.But as Dave Broom found out, it's producing some fine and unusual whisky
By Dave Broom
The landscape is strobing past the train window. The concrete of the city has been left behind and we’re climbing.House:tunnel:field:tunnel:orchard:tunnel: cliff:tunnel:bridge:tunnel:river:space.The sudden change from cluttered urban plain to mountain takes you by surprise. Part of this is down to the speed of the train itself, but Japan, we tend to forget, is rural.The train slows and Ryoji Takata and I get out. It’s face-tingling cold in the town of Miyota-cho. There’s a Buddhist shrine next to the platform and around us roll snowcovered mountains.People with skis push past us. We also head off towards the hills.“Mount Asama,” Takata points. “Can you see the smoke?” What I’d taken to be clouds hovering over the snowy dome of the mountain which dominates the view are in fact signs of volcanic life. As the car pulls into a small clutch of black-walled buildings I wonder whether this really the wisest place to build a distillery.During coffee and pickles, Takata, head of production at Mercian, begins to unfold the story of Japan’s leastknown distillery, Karuizawa. It soon becomes apparent that there is nothing straightforward about this place.Fifty years ago, this site was a vineyard and these buildings housed a winery. Its then owner, Daikoku-budoshu, decided to enter Japan’s infant whisky business. In 1962, it merged with current owner, Mercian.Karuizawa, though, has evolved in a different way to its rivals. Suntory and Nikka’s sites are huge, sprawling affairs.This is tiny. Whisky-making on an almost domestic scale. We aren’t chatting in an elegant meeting room, but in a cluttered, homely, office.“Suntory has 80 per cent of the Japanese whisky market,” Takata is saying. “Nikka has a further 16 per cent.” He smiles. “You see?We have to be different.” Quite how different is only revealed when we take a walk through the plant. He points to the smoking summit. “The mother water is very special. It has permeated through lava (a lump of which is magically produced) and has a high mineral content, is slightly alkaline.” He gives a broad smile.“This is good hangover water!” Maybe not such a bad place to build after all.The malt, which is put into the one ton mashtun, comes from Simpson’s of Berwick and for the last decade has been unpeated, a significant shift away from the heavily-peated character which was previously used. The aim has been to tune the whisky to the changing Japanese palate, but still Karuizawa’s idionsyncracies remain. The malt, for example, is exclusively Golden Promise making this conceivably the only distillery in the world which has stuck with just this variety.It has done so because Takata believes it gives a different flavour profile.“We’ve compared new make from GP and Prisma and the fact is that GP is heavier. It has a stout (he imitates a fat man) quality and an oily character. It is also, we believe, better suited for longer maturation.Young, GP-based whisky is a difficult customer.” As is the norm in Japan, the wort is clear and the ferments (which take place in five wooden washbacks) are long. Again GP’s nature comes into play. It is less efficient than modern strains and here the wash only reaches 7 per cent ABV.“The main thing is how GP gives an increased textural quality, a viscosity,” says Takata. He, it appears, is willing to take a hit on yield to guarantee quality.We duck into the stillroom which seems to barely contain four (small) stills whose necks arc up into the rafters. Distillation takes place in a leisurely fashion, six hours for the wash, seven for the spirit run. By the time we reach the warehouses, mostly crammed with remade ex-sherry casks, things are beginning to seem strangely familiar. Replace the volcano with the Spey and this could be Macallan as it used to be.“That wasn’t the intention,” says Takata.“But we did look closely at the history of Scottish whisky and followed in that tradition. Our style is not traditional Japanese but traditional Scottish, but made in Japan, so it is different!” Karuizawa is the closest you’ll get to the ‘Scottish’ template in Japan, but don’t be fooled into thinking its whiskies are imitations. Scotland offers a starting point, a model, but the results are uniquely Japanese.Takata puts it down to the climate. We’re outside again, heading through the snow towards a swish new tasting facility. The air has the sharp sparkle of the mountains.“We have four very distinct seasons here,” he says, breath steaming. “In summer it can be very hot, in winter it is very cold. This produces a different maturation profile – one which is very different to Scotland. That is what establishes a difference.” The words which reappear in the tasting are: ‘fat,’ ‘full,’ ‘power,’ ‘sweet’ and ‘weight’.These are robust, but balanced, spirits much fuller and more generously proportioned than the normal precise Japanese style.“Ah, yes, they are stout!” Takata says in agreement. “Like soldiers! Very traditional!” Karuizawa is atypical but that is the point.It has to be. How else can it compete? Smaller producers must seek out the niches and then play to their points of difference. To do so not only gives them a commercial advantage but enriches the global family of whisky.Karuizawa 15 years old
Nose: Thick, rich and weighty. Chocolate-covered raisin, black cherry. Almost into treacle toffee. Port-like.
Palate: Light smoke allied to a firm structure. Some resin. Good maturity.Karuizawa 17 years old
Nose: Rich and ripe. Quite fat. Chocolate again with light sultana, dried herb, roasted fruits.
Palate: Long and full. Good supple weight and feel. Plummy.Karuizawa Vintage 1992, single cask
Nose: Startling ruby red colour. Focused aromas. Ripe and dried fruits alongside raspberry. Sweet and big-boned.
Palate: Pretty firm and slightly nutty. Hint of smoke. Weighty. With water, raspberry, raisin. Concentrated and intense.Karuizawa Vintage 1984, single cask
Nose: Lifted but with dense back fruits. Plenty of smoke. Rounded and robust. Still sweet.
Palate: Layered. Intensely peaty. Tannins balanced by characteristic weight and depth which is unusual in Japanese whisky. Just holding its own.