Karuizawa “Asama”

Karuizawa Asama 46%
This is the first of two Karuizawa reviews this week. This is of one of the “Asama” releases that came out right around the time that Number One Drinks purchased all remaining casks of Karuizawa. The big money releases at the time were the single casks, but a few vatted releases emerged as well. The Whisky Exchange had a “Spirit of Asama” at 55% and another of the same name at 48% (I believe, though I could be wrong, that this was the same whisky at different strengths), and there was also an earlier release for the EU at 46%. To make matters even more confusing it’s also possible that the EU release at 46% was from the same vatting as the later ones at higher strength. At any rate, what I do know for sure (I think) is that this sample is from the EU release and that all these Asamas were from whisky distilled in 1999/2000, right before the distillery shut down for good. These were priced quite reasonably at the time—about half the price of the 1999 that K&L sold in the US a couple of years ago (and that’s the next one that I’ll be reviewing later this week).

I do have a bottle of the TWE version at 55% but who knows when I’ll open it; indeed, if the prices for Karuizawa keep going through the roof (and I’m talking Gothic cathedral roof) maybe I’ll just take it with me on my next trip to the UK and send it off to an auction house. After all, the few Karuizawas I’ve had have not wowed me to the extent that the distillery’s reputation and growing price tag would seem to indicate they should have.

I should add for the benefit of my non-geek readership that while availability of all Japanese whisky is seemingly shrinking as of late, and while prices of all Japanese whisky seem to be rising dramatically of late, Karuizawa is the distillery whose reputation and myth (and prices) matches that of closed Scottish distilleries such as Port Ellen. This reputation, made on the back of intensely sherried single casks, is somewhat asymmetrical, I understand, in Japan vs. Europe and the UK. The distillery didn’t have a huge reputation in Japan while active and indeed all the remaining casks were snapped up by Number One Drinks for sale in the UK and Europe.

I’ve not had as many Karuizawas as the more moneyed, more fortunate and more connected but I have to say none of the ones I’ve had have really blown me away. My suspicion is that awareness of Karuizawa among the European whisky cognoscenti happened just as Japanese whisky became the next big thing and given our community’s predilection for myth-making it’s reputation got a bit of a boost from the fact that it was already closed (or as we like to say “lost”). This is not to say that some of their whisky may not in fact be great, but then some of the whisky produced in almost every distillery is great. Then again, as I said, I’ve not had very many Karuizawas so take this with a huge pinch of salt.

Karuizawa Asama (46%; 1999/2000 distillation; from a sample received in a swap)

Nose: Mildly rubbery with some raisins and light citrus (orange); something metallic too. With time the rubber recedes but the metallic note expands. With even more time the citrus becomes more prominent and there’s a bit of cream with it too. The sulphur that shows up on the palate emerges on the nose too eventually but here it’s the kind of gunpowdery note that I enjoy, in good balance with the orange.

Palate: Pretty much as indicated by the nose but with more depth and more citrus. Thinner than the abv would suggest. After a couple of minutes there’s a sudden note of sulphur and it’s the sharp kind that makes my mouth go “furry”. Not the best sort of development. With a few drops of water the sulphur recedes and there’s a pleasant mocha note now. With more time though that rubbery thing returns.

Finish: Medium. Nothing new emerges; the metallic note outlasts the citrus. The sulphur extends the finish, unfortunately. As on the nose with water.

Comments: Pleasant enough at first if not very interesting but then the sulphur showed up on the palate and finish and dragged it down (though it did make the nose more interesting and water did bring it under control). But even without the sulphur there was nothing here to recommend it over a million sherried malts that continue to be produced in Scotland. Serge gave this a glowing review but we don’t seem to have tasted the same whisky.

Review: 82 points.

Thanks to Bpbleus for the sample! (He’s probably forgotten that he ever sent me this—and I can’t remember when I last heard from him.)

6 thoughts on “Karuizawa “Asama”

  1. I reviewed both of TWE’s Spirit of Asamas and found them to be both OK-to-Good. I liked the 55% better, plus it was better when reduced to 48% than the 48% version itself. So, in my opinion, you probably bought the best of the 3 (or 4?) Asama bottles. Serge seems to feel different about all of these, but then again I can’t seem to relate to his notes or scores much recently.

    FWIW, here were my reviews of the Spirits:

    I’m looking forward to your K&L Karuizawa review. Sku, Serge, and whiskybase members had widely varying opinions about it.


  2. I’m still watching you…

    I concur. The Asama was a bit disappointing. My notes conclude with: “Different but a bit funky. It has interesting, balanced S notes, but nothing to carry them.”; final score 79 (which is low for a malt, even on my conservative scale).

    None of the Karuizawas I tried were worth selling a kidney for, let alone two. Karuizawa is the ultimate in hyper hype, beyond Port Ellen, as indicated by auction prices. I regret not having bought case loads of them when they were still (slowly!) selling at TWE for GBP60 (2008-9).


  3. Just sampled… gotta admit it isn’t OMG wow by any stretch of the imagination. I also found it a bit musty… not unpleasant but certainly not exceptional. However I wouldn’t want to draw a conclusion based on one sample.

    Contrast it with an exceptional blend of Kawasaki and Hanyu in Ichiro’s Malt Houou-uhi – now THAT qualifies as something worth tracking down again.


  4. Pingback: Karuizawa Asama Vintages 1999/2000 – Selfbuilt's Whisky Analysis

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