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Karuizawa distillery was established in 1955 by the Mercian Wine Company. Mercian owned a former vineyard and decided to convert this into a small traditional distillery. Apparently the location at Karuizawa was chosen due to offering the closest climatic conditions to the Highlands of Scotland, even though the summers are much hotter and the winters much colder at their peaks than in Scotland. Production started in 1956. In the beginning most of the whisky produced was put into simple blends that were cheap and popular, and the first single malt was released only in 1976. Mercian stopped distilling at Karuizawa in 2001 and in 2007 sold the distillery to the Kirin Brewery Company. Unfortunately, Kirin never showed much interest in investing in the brand and shut the distillery down in 2011. In the same year the entire remaining inventory of the Karuizawa distillery was bought by Number One Drinks and moved to Ichiro Akuto’s Chichibu distillery. This particular expression was distilled in 2000 and bottled from cask #7590 in 2013 as a private release for Isetan, a Japanese department store.
The nose is rich and fruity. Right from the start I got dried figs, bitter chocolate, and sweet sherry. This was followed by distinct flavours of soy sauce, hints of menthol and a touch of rubber. Adding water diluted all these flavours but brought forth a rush of balsamic vinegar.
The palate is full-bodied, warming and dry. There are rich rubber notes (in a good way), light balsamic vinegar flavours, bitter chocolate as well as hints of sawdust. With water all flavours become somewhat subdued: all dryness is now gone and hints of liquorice appear for the first time.
The finish is long, warming and dry. Balsamic vinegar is back, followed by some white pepper and nuts.
I have not tasted too many 12-year old Karuizawas in my life and this one was an interesting expression. Although punchy and fruity, the alcohol was beautifully integrated and the nose provided an attractive panoply of fruity and acidic flavours; for a 12-year old this surely had a lot of character. Though the palate was less interesting, the finish was satisfyingly long and spicy. Had there been less balsamic vinegar flavours (which I am not very fond of), this might have been 90’s material.