Thursday, July 29, 2010


The Noh series, the brainchild of the Number One Drinks Company, has a wider significance than just offering some nicely packaged, tasty whiskies. It has, with one exception, featured single casks from Kirin Group's Karuizawa distillery in Nagano Prefecture. For years now, the news coming out of Karuizawa has been almost entirely negative. The last time I checked with the Kirin press office, they confirmed to me the distillery had been mothballed. The most recent official bottling was a 2007 12-year-old Karuizawa Wine Cask, to mark the 12th anniversary of the museum on the site of the distillery.

And yet, while Kirin appear to have left the distillery to slowly slip into oblivion, Europe has been all abuzz with Karuizawa. That is largely thanks to Number One Drinks. The Noh bottlings, which are only part of their Karuzawa offerings, have really added to the excitement. Here is a full list of the Noh series to date:
1. Karuizawa 1995 (bottled 2008) Cask No. 5004. 63 percent alcohol. 186 bottles (from a Japanese wine cask)
2. Karuizawa 1995 (bottled 2008) Cask No. 5007. 63 percent alcohol. 246 bottles (from a Japanese wine cask, exclusive to Taiwan)
3. Karuizawa 1977 (bottled 2008) Cask No. 7026. 62.8 percent alcohol. 528 bottles (exclusive to La Maison du Whisky)
4. Karuizawa 1995 (bottled 2009) Cask No. 5039. 59.4 percent alcohol. (reduced for Norway) 222 bottles (from a Japanese wine cask, exclusive to Norway)
5. Hanyu 1988 (bottled 2009) Cask No. 9306. 55.6 percent alcohol. 625 bottles
6. Karuizawa 1976 (bottled 2009) Cask No. 6719. 63 percent alcohol. 486 bottles
7. Karuizawa 1977 (bottled 2010) Cask No. 4592. 60.7 percent alcohol. 190 bottles
The next release is expected to be another 1977 Karuizawa and a 1994 bottling (Karuizawa 1994/2010. Cask No. 270. 62.7 per cent alcohol) is being done for La Maison du Whisky ready for Whisky Live Paris in September.

Marcin Miller at Number One explains the concept behind the series:
"We feel it is important when we bottle a whisky in the ‘official’ Vintage Series that it should be true to the distillery character. For example, the 1985 #7017 was, for me, archetypal Karuizawa; big, bold, uncompromising, complex and reminiscent of an autumnal forest walk (pine, mushroom, truffle) with plenty of sherry and mixed nuts. The same applies to classics like the Karuizawa 1967 and 1971.

"Occasionally we come across a cask that doesn’t fit in with the traditional Karuizawa flavour profile; for example, we unearthed a few Japanese wine casks, that is to say casks formerly used to mature Japanese red wine (classic Bordeaux blend in style). Obviously, the whisky from these casks was different to the majority of sherry butts we have bottled from that distillery. We felt they needed to be presented differently (and that is where the Noh series comes in).

"In terms of a ‘theme’ to the series, I am tempted to say they are unusual whiskies which deserve eye-catching presentation. Although the majority of bottlings have been from Karuizawa, the Noh Series is not limited to that distillery; we bottled a Hanyu cask last year and there may be releases from Chichibu and other distilleries in due course."
Miller explains that the striking labels come courtesy of an exclusive arrangement with the Kamiasobi Noh Troupe ( in Japan. They first made contact with Kamiasobi at Whisky Live! Japan 2008, where the troupe performed extracts from a play about the God of Whisky. Now, Number One pays a royalty to use images of the theatre group's masks and figures on its bottles .

"Noh is one of Japan’s oldest performing arts, dating back to the 14th century; we felt that association with classical culture and the opportunity to create some striking labels was worth pursuing," Miller says. "The utilitarian packaging of Karuizawa’s Vintage Series is perfect for our single cask selections. However, David Croll and I agreed that we could create a range that perhaps had greater impact, combining stunning whisky with arresting designs."

What with Ichiro Akuto's uber cool card series, Full Proof Europe's risque butt wiggling labels, innovative labeling is nothing new to the indy Japanese whisky makers. The Noh series is an interesting and classy addition to this scene and the whisky inside the bottles is, in my experience so far, very good indeed.

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