It isn’t often whisky fans get to meet a true legend in the global whisky industry. Last week in Hong Kong, several lucky individuals had such a chance, when the legendary Karuizawa master distiller, Osami Uchibori, held a private tasting featuring some of his favourite bottles. During the event, he signed bottles and spoke on the rare Japanese whisky brand he was instrumental in creating.
On November 16th Bonhams in Hong Kong will be hosting what is expected to be their biggest whisky auction to date. The lots include over 70 bottles from the closed Karuizawa distillery, Hanyu Card Series bottles, numerous single cask Yamazaki bottles, and many many more. A bottle of Karuizawa 1960 52-year-old, the oldest Karuizawa expression and a bottle which was kept by Uchibori himself, is expected to be one of the highlights of the day.
Karuizawa whisky stands at the top of the whisky industry, above any other. As I recently reported, ‘Karuizawa is the brand to rise most in value compared to any other whisky in the world, since 2013, according to auction and sales reports by Whiskystats.net.’
Leading up to the November auction, Bonhams Wine & Whisky Director, Daniel Lam, invited Uchibori to Hong Kong to sign Karuizawa bottles for fans and to host a tasting of some rare Karuizawa whiskies, and his personal favourites. Speaking to Lam, he comments on the importance of the tasting for the famed auction house. ‘We were delighted to have Uchibori San conduct this tasting in Bonhams Hong Kong, as he is one of the most iconic people in Japanese whisky history’.
Four whiskies were sampled during the tasting, each with their own, enthralling tale.
Karuizawa Rouge Cask
The tasting started with the Rouge Cask, which was one of Uchibori’s projects back in the 90s, for which he used red wine barrels for maturation from the winery of owning company, Mercian. The distiller aimed to see what the wine would add to the whisky in terms of colour intensity and flavour. Close monitoring was key, and the releases started after the spirit hit the 12 year old mark, after 2007. Back then, bottles were sold for as little as $30. Needless to say, these bottles today are much, much pricier.
Karuizawa 1976 35 Year Old
The second dram in the tasting was the small, square-shaped Karuizawa 1976 35-year-old. This particular cask was initially ordered by a famous Japanese musician who cancelled the order last minute, leaving the distillery with the entire batch. What a mistake! Distilled in 1976 and bottle on December 20th 2011, this is a 61.5% ABV powerhouse recommended by the master distiller.
The Karuizawa 1972 Vintage cask was distilled in 1972 and aged in a sherry butt, adding spice and dried fruit to the powerful, weighty Karuizawa character. Bottled by Number One Drinks, one of the largest buyers of the final Karuizawa casks, the Vintage bottlings are iconic in the Karuizawa single cask range.
Karuizawa Single Cask 1989
Another sherry-aged expression bottled by Number One Drinks. This was distilled in 1989 and bottled in 2010, yielding only 240 bottles at 59.6% ABV.
Uchibori started at the Karuizawa distillery in 1960, five years after the distillery was set up, and experienced the rise and fall of Karuizawa through the decades, from the decline of consumption in Japan in the 80s to the distillery’s levelling in 2016. Since joining, Uchibori took part in every part of the whisky-making process, from mashing the grains to dealing with liquor tax issues. He became master distiller and Malt Master in the 1980s, the years which are today known to have produced the very best Karuizawa whiskies in existence.
In recent years, the ex-master distiller spends his day brewing beer at Yo-Ho Brewing near his home, and experiments with creating barrel-aged beers. The question on everyone’s lips is one – will the spirit of Karuizawa ever be revived? Only time will tell.