New Year, Old Distilleries

With the holiday season behind us and my apartment building’s entry way with a thick layer of the debris of abandoned Christmas trees, it’s time to turn our eyes to a new year. For some, this is a time of reflection, a time of anticipation, vows for self-improvement and so forth. I don’t have any blog resolutions, per se, other than a promise to continue my low-grade jackassery and witless, incurious observations that firmly mark me as a member of whisky blogging’s chattering class. In other words, expect very little to change.

This year is going to be one of exploration, in part. Isn’t it always? Yes, but we’re enjoying some new opportunities here in the US. New Japanese whiskies are landing on our shores – the new Nikkas most notably – and I’ve managed to secure some other samples for this year, not to mention the flight of limited edition Yamazakis. From my discussions with David Driscoll and David Girard, it’s clear what a mess getting Japanese whiskies are into the US. Apparently the trade agreements aren’t in place with Japan as they are with other nations, which require a ton of lab analysis to approve a new whisky for import. This is a real shame: Japan has some absolutely top-notch whiskies that would be sure to please the palate of almost any aficionado of Scotch whisky. With the rising prices of Scotch whisky, it’s certainly worth a re-examination of the options available to see if there are substitutes available elsewhere. Beyond that, a little palate globetrotting is always a fun experience.

Anyone who has talked with me in person knows that closed distilleries are a passing passion for me. There’s something exciting about the opportunity to try something that may never be available again. My last year of extensive introspection, exhaustively woven into many blog posts, has only reaffirmed my interest in that experience. So what better to kick of 2013 than a closed Japanese distillery?

We’re talking, of course, about the Karuizawa distillery. I make no attempt to sound like an expert about Japanese whisky; aside from what’s crossed my palate, it’s much more of an unknown quantity to me than, say, Scotland or the United States. From what’s available out there, it’s apparent that Karuizawa stopped distilling in 2001 and closed ten years later. Now, Karuizawas are reasonably easy to find (for Japanese whiskies, meaning you have to import them from Scotland*), but they frequently command £200 and more, meaning you’re looking at $350 for some of those single cask offerings after shipment. Certainly nothing outlandish, but just as certainly part of the price tier where some way to mitigate the risk is appreciate. I’ve had a couple Karuizawas in the past and while I liked them, I wasn’t necessary blown away by them, and not enough to risk $300 on them.  

Fast forward to late 2012: The Whisky Exchange tweets about the availability of the Karuizawa Spirit of Asama bottles. I check the link out, expecting no doubt to find another bottle above my personal threshold in this case, and am stunned. £45 and £50 after VAT is subtracted. I can’t believe it: an affordable Karuizawa. Spirit of Asama is a vatting of 77 casks, at about 12-13 years old (the casks were filled in ’99 and ’00). Though I’ve already got a checkmark by Karuizawa on my “closed distilleries to taste” list (cue the sound of David Driscoll harrumphing at my closed distillery scorekeeping. Sorry, David, I’m gonna do it), a reasonably priced expression is always worth checking out.

Several weeks ago, Serge reviewed these and gave them an 87 (48% ABV bottling) and 85 (55% ABV bottling). Expectations set: these are good but not legendary bottles. After wrestling with the corks – seriously, the corks on these are awful – I finally get the bottles open. My 48% bottle had a fragmenting cork – fortunately, I was splitting this bottle with a friend, so it was going to be decanted anyway.

I finally sat down to taste these recently after the holidays, curious to see what they had in common and what might be different.

The 55% was my baseline, being closer to a natural cask strength for the many casks involved. The nose on it immediately revealed thick sherry with an accompanying slight sherry funk to it. There was some underlying wood but it didn’t overpower – though it did show some age and seemed fairly tame. The top end had orange zest; it was slightly figgy with some red fruit and leather.

The palate was very leathery with tons of sherry. It had a fairly good dose of white pepper, some moderate heat as well. A little fig and plum gave some depth to the body and some thick molasses stickiness filled out the bottom end. A nice, rich palate (though I confess of late I find that heavy leathery note a little less alluring than the incredible nutty flavors you get from some sherry-matured whisky).

The 55% Asama finished warm, and had a bourbony, slightly citric top note that leaned towards orange zest. It gave way to a big sherry and fig combo, with a familiar musty, woody finish I’ve seen on previous Karuizawas (at times, I’ve thought this to be not too dissimilar from what a slightly dusty melon rind would taste like). Not bitter at all, but just a bit old.

The 55% Asama bears a massive sherry influence, and is certainly one of the least expensive Karuizawas I’ve seen, while still having something in common with the pricier versions.

The reduced bottling appears to have come from the same batch of casks. How does it compare?

The nose is slightly musty sherry, with an unfortunate straight alcohol/solvent note. It’s got light wood, a touch of oranges, and some dried fruit.

The palate is leathery again, with sherry, a very mild dose of white pepper (this has almost none of the heat of the 55%), and gentle heat. It’s slightly figgy with a far off molasses quality to add some depth, as well as a little light wood.

The finish is led by wood, and starts slightly warm like its higher proof brother, with a clean sherry note and a touch of citrus zest. Unlike the 55% which goes a bit more musty and dusty on the finish, the 48% settles on dried fruit.

The 48% is a little gentler, but to my palate by comparison it almost seems timid and somewhat flat. It’s not a bad whisky by any stretch of the imagination, but it just seems to need a little more life to it.

Of the two, I prefer the 55%. You can reduce it to 48% if you’re so inclined (Serge was successful in this experiment), or you can have it at full strength and enjoy a little more zip. The 48% is unquestionably more restrained and easy-drinking, but I just prefer the 55%.

Fortunately, both of these whiskies are still available at The Whisky Exchange for the reasonable prices mentioned above – the 48% is £45 ex VAT and the 55% is £51 ex VAT (I don’t get any affiliate money for those links, so click and enjoy and don’t worry about putting any of your hard earned money in my pockets – your hard earned money solely goes to TWE on these).

* From above: A note popped into my mailbox this past week from Royal Mile Whiskies noting that they will be unable to ship to the US. Apparently the UK’s CAA has reclassified alcohol and as of today, RMW will be unable to ship to the US. This is a shame as Royal Mile has had some superlative single cask releases, most notably a stellar ’87 Glengoyne. Here’s hoping this is a misinterpretation and things will proceed as normal. Tim and Billy of TWE seem cautiously optimistic in this thread at the WWW forums - we in the US can only hope their interpretation is correct and we will soon see a return to normalcy. Otherwise, a major source of excellent whisky will be closed off to the US in short order.

Once again, here’s wishing you a happy new year. I have enjoyed the comments and interactions that Scotch & Ice Cream brought in 2012, and I hope to continue to entertain and interest in my own peculiar way again through 2013. Won’t you join me?

At a glance:

Karuizawa “Spirit of Asama” 55% ABV
Nose: 
Thick sherry presence upfront that’s ever so slightly funky. Wood beneath it but it’s not overpowering, just a bit old and tame. A light orange zest hint on the top end. Slightly figgy with some traces of red fruit, a touch of leather.
Palate: 
Leathery upfront, tons of sherry. A fairly good dose of white pepper, moderate heat. A little fig, a touch of plum. Just a slight hint of thick molasses. 
Finish: 
Warm at first, with a little bourbony, slightly citric top note reminiscent of orange zest again. A big sherry/fig combo, giving way to a fairly familiar musty, woody finish I’ve gotten off previous Karuizawas. 
Comment:   
Very heavily sherry-influenced. It’s one of the less expensive Karuizawas you’ll find and still has something in common with more expensive versions. 
Rating:
B

Karuizawa “Spirit of Asama” 48% ABV
Nose: 
Slightly musty sherry, a touch of a straight alcohol/solvent note. Light wood, a touch of oranges, some dried fruit. 
Palate: 
Leathery with sherry, very mild dose of white pepper, light heat. Slightly figgy and with a far-off hint of molasses. Light wood creeping in. 
Finish: 
Wood leads, slightly warm at first with a clean sherry note and a touch of citrus zest. Settles in on dried fruit.
Comment: 
A little gentler, seems a little timid and flat. A good whisky; just needs a little more life. 
Rating:
B-

One thought on “New Year, Old Distilleries”

  1. Excellent post. Truly! Love the quick history lesson, the narrative, the review and the informative side note re: UK retailers shipping policies to the US. Thanks for keeping the info flowing. Happy New Year! Looking forward to reading more.

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