Distillery Focus

The end of days

Dave Broomjoins the final group to visit this much loved Japanese distillery
By Dave Broom
It’s not like I wasn’t prepared. I knew there couldn’t be a lot left, but the sight in the warehouse was still a shock. The remaining stock didn’t even fill the whole space. All that was left to show for 44 years of whisky at Karuizawa was 300 casks.

A distillery’s DNA exists both in the physical place of its birth and in cask. One created the flavours, the other took that raw potential, nurtured it over the years, made it whole. All of that was overseen by the distillers because whisky-making is an active, living, personal process and a distiller is an active participant. As soon as he (or she) is removed, that distillery dies. That’s what had happened here. All of the years of care, effort, love and belief reduced to these casks, sitting mute in this warehouse.

I walked around looking at the numbers, trying to discern connections. The stencils were faded, some of ends warping, the layers of paint flaking allowing you to just pick up the occasional name: “Glenlivet”, “Tokyo via Yokohama”.

Across the aisle sat new casks from Japan’s newest distillery. Karuizawa had been emptied and all its remaining stock is being held here at Chichibu. It’s the past and the present, old style and new, the passing of the flame. But standing there in Chichibu, hand on Karuizawa #3692, you can’t help wondering why it had to be passed. It’s not something which Ichiburo-san, former distillery manager at Karuizawa and now master distiller at Chichibu fully comprehends either.

"We try to laugh, but the levity is forced. A closed distillery is a dead zone. Its function has been removed"

It was he who had just broken the news that the new owners of the Karuizawa site had handed back the distilling licence, thereby ruling out any last hope that whisky-making could perhaps, just perhaps, start up again. “I’m sad,” he says. “I was there for 50 years.” What was it like? “There were over 50 of us there. We had a cooperage, we worked three shifts a day. We made good whisky. It was a happy time.” He stops. Nods. No more need be said.

The day after, I’m in the final group to visit the site. There is a dead echo to buildings which once housed a winery, but from 1956 had made whisky. It has been mothballed since 2000, but there was always that desperate hope that once the slump had ended, like Mars, it would reopen.

After all Kirin, which bought it in 2006, already had whisky-making experience at Gotemba. What a pair they would make: light and heavy, two volcano whiskies Gotemba with Fuji behind it, Karuizawa with Asama. But no.

We all find our own space and fall silent, smile at the mashtun that looks like R2D2, stroke absentmindedly the quartet of small stills whose pinched waists make them look like women sporting Dior’s New Look. We wander through the warehouses, rattling the chains against the occasional empty cask not quite knowing what to look for. We try to laugh, but the levity is forced.

A closed distillery is a dead zone. Its function has been removed, its soul has been excised. It isn’t a distillery any more, it’s a mausoleum.

The previous night, over drams in Helmsdale’s new Karuizawa branch, the talk had turned to what happens when people stop believing in whisky. It is bad enough when it is the consumer, more serious when it is the owners. You can see why mothballing is necessary at the depths of a slump, but to then sell when the market is so vibrant, when Karuizawa has built a global cult following, makes no business sense.

Karuizawa was in the right place at the right time, but none of its owners had exported it, even domestically it was barely known. The people who loved it, who made it, were never in positions of influence. Those who were didn’t appear to have whisky souls. Karuizawa used to put its three whisky makers on the label. Lip service. It’s hard not to feel angry.

Whisky lovers may rub their hands in glee at the prospect of a stream of Karuizawa single casks appearing, but it should be excitement tinged with sadness. Yes it is great that the liquid has been saved rather than being poured away, but when these 300 casks have gone, when the Asama vatting has ended, then Karuizawa is dead.

Better, surely, to look forward to more whisky being made.

I dribble some Asama on the ground in a farewell blessing and we pass the bottle round. We present the last two workers, men whose faces had been on the labels, who have seen their place of work empty in front of them, with bottles. Like Ichiburo-san, their expressions speak volumes. As I look back for one last glimpse, they have gone. The lights in the office are turned off.