Sunday, December 5, 2010

Karuizawa and Kawasaki star at Malt Maniacs Awards

Noh Whisky 32-year-old (1976/2009), which won gold

Update 5.12.2010: I dropped Marcin Miller at Number One Drinks Company a line asking about the success of "a couple" of his whiskies in the awards. It seems I was understating the extent of their success.
Marcin: "A couple? A couple? FOUR of the 12 Gold Medal winning whiskies were sourced by Number One Drinks; three Karuizawas and one Kawasaki. I think this is testament to the astonishing quality of some of the whiskies to which we have exclusive access and, of course, to the Japanese mastery of distillation and maturation. These medals follow the award of Japanese Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2011 to a Karuizawa we bottled for La Maison du Whisky and The Whisky Exchange. I’m delighted by the recognition these fantastic, sherried beauties are receiving from some of the most discerning palates around."

Two unsung Japanese whisky distilleries, Kawasaki and Karuizawa, were ahead of the pack in the Malt Maniacs Awards, announced on Wednesday.

The Non-Plus-Ultra Award 2010 in the premium category went to a La Maison du Whisky import of Kawasaki 'Ichiro's Choice' 1982/2009 (65.4%, OB, Refill Sherry Butts). The discovery by Ichiro Akuto of grain whisky from the long-closed Kawasaki distillery was one of the big developments of 2009. As I say in my write up for the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2011:

The distillery at Kawasaki, an industrial city between Yokohama and Tokyo, had several incarnations but it was originally built by the old Showa Brewery company, which is believed to have produced some malt whisky in the late 1950s. Grain whisky was made from about 1969, by which time Kawasaki was part of the Sanraku Ocean company. Through a contact at Karuizawa distillery, which also used to be part of Sanraku Ocean, Akuto was able to uncover some 1976, 1981 and 1982 grain casks at a winery in Katsunuma, Yamanashi Prefecture and bottled them in 2009 under his “Ichiro’s Choice” brand. The real surprise has been that these neglected casks actually seem to contain some good whisky. Nicholas Sikorski at La Maison du Whisky in Paris describes the 1976 grain as “one of the best Japanese whisky finds of the year” and says the quality of 120 bottles of Kawasaki 1982 which La Maison are bringing to into Europe is such that they plan to feature it prominently in their 2010/2011 catalogue.
My own impressions of the 1982 Kawasaki I have at home are that, while it has a rather unfriendly rough alcohol smell, it is surprisingly soft on the palate, with notes of sweet Demerara sugar, coffee and stewed black tea. The Malt Maniacs award, which, as I have explained previously, is one of the few whisky competitions that I take serious interest in, has justified Sikorski`s high praise. I don`t suspect many of those 120 bottles are left.

The other big winner at the Malt Maniacs was the Karuizawa distillery in Nagano Prefecture, which was crowned as the "Old World Whisky Distillery" of the year. Interesting that Japanese whisky has become so established that it is actually considered part of whisky's "Old World", rather than the "New World" represented by the Amrut Distillery in India. Karuizawa won three gold medal, more than any other distillery. Those went to:

-Karuizawa 32yo 1977/2010 'Noh' series bottling (60.7 percent, Number One Drinks, Sherry Butt, C#4592.)
-Karuizawa 1975/2010 (61.8 percent, Official bottling for La Maison du Whisky, Cask #6736)
-Karuizawa 32yo 1976/2009 'Noh' series bottling (63 percent, Number One Drinks, Sherry Butt, cask number 6719.)

Again, I will quote a bit from my recent write up of Karuizawa for the Malt Whisky Yearbook, because basically it sums up where we are with Karuizawa:

Karuizawa stopped distilling in 2001 and, apart from a few distilling runs for maintenance purposes, has not been active since. The latest word from Kirin, which took over the distillery’s owner Mercian in 2007, is that the distillery is inactive. The most recent new 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 that would be the rather sad ending to 45 years of whisky distilling in this beautiful Nagano Prefecture mountain resort if it were not for the phenomenal energy of the Japanese single malt scene in Europe...
All of the Karuizawa winners in this year's Malt Maniacs Awards are products of that European energy. Two are from the Noh series from Number One Drinks Company (about which I have written much more fully here) and one is from the always innovative La Maison du Whisky in Paris. Maybe, just Maybe, someone at Kirin might see Karuizawa's international prestige and put a few yen the distillery's way (it is only small). But then, I suppose, the opportunities for innovative independents like No. 1 and La Maison, who actually understand the European premium market, would probably dry up.

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