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Old & Rare

Rare Batch 75

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Karuizawa Cask Strength, 2nd release; Karuizawa 1982, Bottled 2009, Cask #2748 (TWE 10th anniversary); Karuizawa Noh 1980, 32 Years Old, Cask #3565

This week’s rare whisky tasting features a name that is curiously easy to overlook in this day and age: Karuizawa. Given escalating auction prices and the hype that has surrounded this closed Japanese distillery for the past decade, it’s often easy to forget just how superb many of its whiskies were over the years.

These are whiskies which, with their powerful, spice-heavy and exotically complex style, came to exemplify the best and most distinctive attributes of Japanese single malts. For this tasting, Angus MacRaild has selected three characteristic expressions from this legendary distillery to try.

First up is one of the more ‘humble’ examples in the form of the Cask Strength Second Edition, a no-age-statement (NAS) marriage of Sherry cask-matured Karuizawas from the latter years of the distillery’s production (its stills fell silent in 2000).

MacRaild finds it a heavy, yet enticingly dense and deep example that shows, despite some views to the contrary, that this era of Karuizawa still yielded some great whisky.

Next comes a 1982 single Sherry cask bottled by The Whisky Exchange to mark the retailer’s 10th anniversary in 2009. MacRaild is surprised by how much the flavours remind him of the old, pre-war malts that Gordon & MacPhail released in the 1980s, with transport cask-style coconut and tropical fruit notes. 

Finally, there’s a 1980 single Sherry cask bottled for Sweden and Norway in 2013. This is more of a classical Sherry style, with a plethora of dark fruits and deep, leathery, spicy intensity. MacRaild notes the differences, but finds it to be in the same league as the 1982 Karuizawa in terms of quality.

Scoring Explained

Overview

  • Karuizawa Cask Strength, 2nd Release

    Score

    88

    Karuizawa Cask Strength, 2nd Release
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    61.7%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Japan
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    Prickling with spices and plum sauce. Ginger cake, paprika, camphor, green walnut liqueur, cherry kirsch and soft liquorice. Lots of stewed fruits, medicinal touches, dunnage and hessian notes. Water evolves things towards freshly baked breads, a multitude of toasted seeds and petrichor.

    Palate

    Spiced mincemeat, cinnamon pastries, herbal liqueurs and prune juice. Deep, earthy, spicy and rather a lot of dark fruits soaked in Navy rum. Pretty classical latter-day Karuizawa. With dilution there’s a more easy fruitiness. Golden syrup drizzled over sultanas, baked apple pie, Turkish delight and salted almonds.

    Finish

    Rather long, nervously Sherried, spicy, drying, notes of dark fruit chutney and lemon cake.

    Conclusion

    People are often fond of saying that these later-era Karuizawas are overpriced. And it’s true, they are. However, despite all the fuss, they are good whiskies in their own right as well. I found this one deep, opulently Sherried and very enjoyable.

    Right place, right time

    Mixing a Highball of eye-watering expense while on a caravan holiday in the Trossachs.

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    Karuizawa 1982, Bottled 2009, Cask #2748 (TWE 10th Anniversary)

    Score

    92

    Karuizawa 1982, Bottled 2009, Cask #2748 (TWE 10th Anniversary)
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    56.1%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Japan
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    Dried cupboard spices, a kind of dusty peatiness, some creamy, American oak-derived vanilla custard and notes of aged dessert wines, caraway, herbal liqueurs, precious hardwood resins, pine cones and mint tea. Mentholated, subtly medicinal, notes of Darjeeling, lemon cough medicine and jasmine. Very reminiscent of some of the older Gordon & MacPhail bottlings of aged pre-war single malts released in the 1980s – it’s the rather tropical sense of sweet coconut on the nose that does it. Water only serves to enhance this impression. More creamy coconut butter, lime leaf, dried mango and papaya and lots of exotic fruit teas.

    Palate

    Big, punchy, salty, leathery, darkly earthy, spicy and with a meaty sinew about the texture. Many dried herbs, wood resins, gentle peat smoke, chilli oil, firecrackers and pot-pourri. Also umami paste, mushroom powder, mustard seeds, verbena, and chilli and salt-infused dark chocolate. Superb! Water delivers a wonderfully elegant fusion of dried spices, herbs and medical tinctures. But the texture is a little oilier and the flavours generally more evenly spread now.

    Finish

    Wonderfully thick, long, resinous, oily, gently tarry and very herbal, with a slightly more bitter edge.

    Conclusion

    I would love to know where Karuizawa was sourcing its casks from during this era. It’s not a style that you find in the mid-1970s examples or earlier. It really feels reminiscent of these old-school transport cask-matured malts that G&M released so frequently in the 1980s. I love this style and this is an excellent example.

    Right place, right time

    Raising a glass to all the flippers who missed out.

    Karuizawa Noh 1980, 32 Years Old, Cask #3565

    Score

    92

    Karuizawa Noh 1980, 32 Years Old, Cask #3565
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    59.2%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Japan
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    This one is really concentrating on dark fruit chutney, dates, prunes in Armagnac, very old Demerara rum, blood orange cordial, menthol tobacco, old leather, venison cured in salt, and soy sauce. Soft tarry edges and some caraway distillate with cherry jam and smoked chilies. Water once again works all kinds of wonders. We’re close to some kind of thrillingly good Mojito now. Lots of mint, very old rums, sultanas, rancio, coconut, smoked meats and soft pipe tobaccos.

    Palate

    Intensely leathery, pine sap, beeswax, jasmine, strong black tea, miso, balsamic vinegar and a hugely saline and dense rancio aspect. Some fruity black coffee, mustard powder, dried thyme, cherry throat sweets, blueberries and fragrant, oily peat notes. Immense and pretty ‘in yer face’ whisky. Water gives lots of damp, dunnage-y earthiness. Dates, figs, more mustardy warmth and some toasty, bready notes in the background.

    Finish

    Long, bitterly herbal, leathery, meaty and full of lightly smoked spices and dark, fruity elements. Still some wonderful rancio notes nibbling on the periphery.

    Conclusion

    Quite different from the 1982, but still in the same ballpark of quality. It’s been a while since I tried Karuizawa, I have to say, and it’s been something of a delight. It’s important to remember that, even though the craziness that now surrounds this name is indeed ‘crazy’, it all started with some truly stellar whisky.

    Right place, right time

    Steeling yourself for a big night at the Silence Bar with a hefty bowl of ramen.

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