Quick Hits: Two Old Karuizawas

Let’s finish up a week of older whiskies. I have two older whiskies today, one from the 1980s and one from the 1970s. Both are Karuizawas. For my opinion on the state of the Karuizawa industrial complex see this post from last year—prices have doubtless shot up even higher since then but everything else still seems applicable. Both of these whiskies were bottled in 2011. The first is a “multi vintage” bottling of four casks from the early-mid 1980s, with the youngest having been filled in 1984. An odd thing you might say to vat four casks of Karuizawa rather than milk them each as single casks—as you’ll see, I have a theory about this below. The other one is a more straightforward single sherry cask release, distilled in 1972 and bottled in 2011. I shudder to think how much either would cost now on the secondary market. I did not purchase either of these samples. Back in the days when I used to purchase a lot of whisky from Whiskybase they would occasionally slip samples of some premium whiskies in with my orders. As I have no memory of buying them this must be how I acquired these (as I did the Glenlivet and Glenury reviewed here). As always with reviews of whiskies I have less than 30 ml of, I am not assigning scores.

Karuizawa 27, Multi-Vintages #1 (59.1%; multi-vintages #1, Noh whisky; sherry butt + bourbon casks)

Nose: Musty leather, an old teak trunk, black tea; beneath all of that some jammy notes begin to cohere: dark plum sauce, dried figs. As it sits there’s quite a tannic oak development and then also some brighter fruit (orange peel). With more air the tannic oak recedes and the jammy fruit expands. Water pushes the oak back further still, brings out more of the citrus, and in general brightens it up. Gets stickier as it sits—apricot jam here as well.

Palate: Hits hard with sweet orange peel, savoury gunpowder, Sichuan pepper and mango leather. I was afraid the oak was going to be too prominent but it is not. Approachable but hits hard at full strength. On the second sip it’s even spicier with quite a bit of cracked pepper along with some cinnamon and bitter chocolate (in other words, more oak). More of the orange peel here too as it sits. Okay, let’s add a drop or two of water. Ah yes, much better: the bitter/oaky notes get pushed back, the orange comes to the fore, joined now by some apricot jam.

Finish: Medium-long. It’s the more bitter oak notes that remain. As on the palate with water.

Comments: If I had to guess I would hazard that the sherry butt at the heart of this was a sulphur monster. A couple of non-standout bourbon barrels were probably vatted with it to bring it under control. Well, if that’s what they did it worked. This is very good indeed, especially with water. A powerful sherried whisky with more fruit on the nose and more oak on the palate. I found it quite reminiscent of sherried Highland Park from this era.

Karuizawa 39, 1972 (63.3%; sherry butt 7038)

Nose: Leather here too to start but it’s less musty; and the wood is rosewood rather than teak. Brighter and sweeter from the get-go with berries mixed in with sweet orange peel and apricot and some stewed pineapple. Sweeter still as it sits with the rosewood turning to straight-up rose essence; some softer notes of vanilla custard too. A few drops of water caramelize the fruit.

Palate: As promised by the nose at first with sweet rose and a bit of oak. As I swallow the fruit expands rapidly—all the stuff from the nose but far more concentrated. Gets richer still as it sits with the orange peel nicely balanced with the sweeter notes of rose. With time and air the oak begins to emerge again but it provides a nice frame for the sweeter fruit. Oh yes, I forgot to say, this is very approachable indeed at the ludicrously high strength. Okay, now let’s add some water. Ah yes, caramelized fruit as on the nose and the oak gets pushed way back.

Finish: Long. Nothing new here; all the good stuff from the palate slowly fades out as the oak builds again at the end. After a while the fruit begins to transition to passionfruit as it fades. Water knocks out that muskier fruit but keeps the rest going longer.

Comments: I liked this one quite a bit more than the 27 yo—the cask seems to have been less active, allowing the fruit to develop. I wouldn’t say, however, that I like it better than the early ’70s Caperdonichs, Longmorns etc. that I’ve had. Not that I can afford those either anymore.

Thanks to Menno and CJ for the samples!

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