Perhaps if circumstances had been different, and owners Kirin had kept it open longer, it would still be producing today.
The most astounding thing about Karuizawa Distillery is the way it has joined the likes of Scotland's Port Ellen or Brora in a small group of iconic closed distilleries in just a decade. Even by aged Japanese whisky standards, the malt produced here is special and can command tens of thousands of dollars on those rare occasions when it appears at auction.
The distillery was built in 1955 on an active volcano and was the highest distillery in Japan. It existed in a microclimate in which the high humidity ensured that water from the whisky evaporated, so the whisky maintained a high strength. An amazing concentration of flavours make this one of the tastiest whiskies ever produced. Big, bold, peaty, and fruity, Karuizawa is highly complex. For forty-five years, the distillery made traditional whisky using Golden Promise barley, some of it dried over peat fires, and matured mainly in sherry casks.
Perhaps if circumstances had been different, and owners Kirin had kept it open longer, it would still be producing today. It had started to win a following among whisky aficionados when it closed in 2000, and the growing interest in Japan's whiskies started going into orbit a few months later. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and no one could have foreseen what was about to happen. Kirin sold the land to a property developer; the distillery was decommissioned and stopped producing spirit. Thankfully, the Number One Drinks Company, in association with Ichiro Akuto, rescued the remaining stocks, and those whiskies have since been sold for ever more eye-popping prices. Akuto has also created a whisky called Spirit of Asama, a small batch bottling made using selected casks of the final vintages of Karuizawa from 1999 to 2000.
There is another twist in this tale. There have been attempts to revive the distillery, even though the equipment has gone, and some of those associated with the original distillery have agreed to work with a Tokyo businessman to re-create the classic Karuizawa taste. According to whisky experts, a young entrepreneur was in talks to buy Karuizawa's land and buildings, but plans fell through. Undeterred, this unidentified potential investor is on the hunt for another location. It is said that, in the event that a deal is made, some of the key people from the former distillery have agreed to help him revive the spirit brand.