Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Whilst sampling several dozen Karuizawa casks – from the late 70s up to the final vintage (2000) – in January of this year, I came across two that stood out, not only because of the quality of the whisky (there were others that were up there with those two) but also because they were somewhat atypical, showing a different side of Karuizawa. I knew one of these was going to be the first release in the Nonjatta “Ghost”-series but it was hard to decide which. I spent many an evening going back and forth between cask #3681 from 1996 and cask #7815 from 1997. I took my samples to a few people in the business (bartenders, writers) and asked them which one they preferred: half of them liked the tenderness and elegance of the 1996, the other half was really intrigued by the rough, earthy character of the 1997. That didn’t help. In the end, I went for the 1996… but I’m happy I don’t have to choose anymore, because the good folk at Isetan Shinjuku have just released the 1997. Cask #7815 is, incidentally, the last cask from the 1997 vintage.
The first thing that will strike you is that #7815 is very light in colour (pale gold) for a 16-year old – definitely a refill cask. On the nose, it’s very earthy with barbecued vegetables (pumpkin, green peppers, jacket potatoes), herbs (mint, rosemary), burdock soup and a fair bit of smoke (something akin to a smoldering campfire). Underneath all this, you’ll find some honey-lemon tea, sour apples, Vicks VapoDrops (no, this is not product placement), foie gras, pine trees and new paper. On the palate, you get more vegetables – goya and okura, this time –, sour apricots, candied grapefruit peel, salmonberries, a hint of cough syrup and the sort of tiny metallic notes that you often get with ‘younger’ Karuizawas. It’s quite light overall and it doesn't have the sort of finish that follows you all the way to the parking lot but it lingers in a very subtle way, leaving you with fragile resonances that are hard to pin down.
Water intensifies the smoke… initially, that is, because after a few seconds the smoke gives way to lovely gentle fruit aromas (ripe peaches, apricots). The palate undergoes a similar transformation – you get more fruit, but you lose some of the complementary flavours that play together so well when you have it undiluted. But that’s one of the nice things about this particular bottling: you can really tweak it to the mood you’re in.
There you have it: not a big, robust, heavily-fruited, oily Karuizawa, but if that’s what you want, there’s plenty out there (well, on the auction circuit, I should say). This is a Karuizawa that’s in a different register, but what a fascinating register it is. I, for one, am thrilled the people at Isetan Shinjuku had the guts to bottle this.
Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.