Thanks to /u/walking_spanish for the sample.
If you’re like me, Karuizawa is that word you know you can’t pronounce correctly (‘karo-zau-wa’) that means “whisky I can’t possibly afford a bottle of”. But why?
Well, Japanese whisky is one of those things we need to discuss. Because there’s a lot of misinformation on.
First up, the main elephant in the room: All Japanese whiskies are pure gold that is the best whiskies in the world so much so that some say that anyone else making single malts should quit and make something else, like rum. That’s not correct. Some Japanese whiskies were quite good. Included in these were those like the Hanyu Card Series, some Yamazaki age stated releases and even some Karuizawa releases.
This doesn’t mean all of them are amazing. However, the reaction to a) not being able to afford these single casks or not being able to find them anymore, b) thinking that the transitive property of quality exists, aka “They made something good before, therefore the others should be good”, mixed together has led some whisky nerds to assume that these whiskies are great. Add to that the reaction to some good releases led to buying out all the age statement whisky in these distilleries to the point where they can’t keep up, and you have a tulip-level scarcity reaction.
Not to mention people buy into the hype, even in Japan, and proudly state they took over the Japanese whisky world. Or various shit articles declaring Scotch is dead because one crazy-eyed reviewer who thinks he’s whisky God said he liked on whisky from Japan.
Elephant number two, which is smaller, is among whisky nerds ourselves: Because cat-eyes McGee declared it good, and people went crazy, Japanese whisky is all hype and no results. As anyone will tell you, assuming an entire country’s whisky is bad because of some ‘okay’ or boring results that are overpriced is silly. Yes, people are paying too much for Yoichi 15 or Hakushu 12 right now. Yes, those are just okay whiskies.
No, not everything from Japan is shit. Nor is everything from Japan mana from Heaven. The truth is somewhere in-between. Marketing is an amoral angry animal that wants to shove as much down your throat as you can afford, leaving you beaten and bloody in the corner. You need to figure out what you can learn from it, what’s a lie, and what’s true.
That brings us to Karuizawa. Originally a vineyard, they started distilling back in 1956. They were owned by Mercian who used it and two other distilleries to make a blend. In the 1980s they launched a single malt. They sourced their Golden Promise malted barley from England and used European oak ex-sherry casks for a lot of their whiskies.
Distilling stopped in 2000. Before that they were a small distillery that put out just 150,000 litres per year, leading to rarer whisky. So nowadays the few remaining casks are released slowly from the distillery.
Enter Karuizawa 10 1996 Single Cask – Sample Bottle. This is a sample bottle that was purchased from the distillery itself. At least originally. I’m actually having trouble finding any other information on it.
So let’s see how it tastes, shall we?
Price: Many monies
Cask Number: 822
Colour: 10YR 7/10
Nose: Peach pie, whipped cream, taro, mojito, basil
Initial fruit and whipped cream. Given the high strength, I expected to be blasted in the face. Nope, somewhat light.
Water brings out… shit, do I have to say it? Yeah, taro. I feel like I’m giving into stereotypes saying that. It’s an earthy, sweet aspect. I don’t know, I have it in bubble tea every so often. I really took a long time not wanting to write that.
There’s some herbal aspects, some mint, and some basil. Maybe Thai Basil. Let’s move on before I feel like my white guilt will destroy me.
Taste: Lemon zest/New York cheesecake, strawberry tea, wood, honey
Initial taste is a nice amount of citrus. Good tannic elements, some wood, and some honey. Water brings out a bit of wood and honey. Though frankly, the main acidity is what takes centre stage.
Very thick mouthfeel.
Finish: Cumin, peach, truffles, oak, mint, broccoli
Earthy finish. Lots of vegetal aspects. And this perfect truffle flavour at the end.
I don’t really care who you are, truffle tastes great to me and I’ll stand by that.
Conclusion: Thick, rich, and vegetal. Very unique. Nothing about this screams simple or just a ten-year-old whisky. It’s an interesting one.
Is it going to eclipse all other whiskeys? Heck no. It’s well made, it’s not screwed around with, and it’s tasty. It does things differently and makes me hope someone saved some of the stills when the distillery was demolished.
If you’re not a big fan of earth, the finish may turn you off. And if you’re ready for whisky Nirvana, then you’ll be annoyed that it’s just Smells Like Teen Spirit (a good song, but not their best). I’m happy I tried this. The price is prohibitive, and I hope someday I’ll have one that is worthy of the “you could buy a car for that” price, however I doubt they’ll ever hit that point.
World Whisky review #326, Japan review #38, Whisky Network reviews #1478
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