Monday, June 11, 2012

Karuizawa "Rouge Cask" Series

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

Today, I would like to introduce a series of Karuizawa releases that is not very well-known abroad (thankfully, maybe) but that I am really fond of: the Karuizawa "Rouge Cask" series. The single casks that constitute this series all come from the 1995 vintage and, as you may have guessed, they were ex-red wine casks. It's important to understand that these whiskies spent their entire period of maturation in these ex-wine casks, so they were not "finished", "ACEd" or what-have-you. The quality is incredibly high (some of my all-time favourite Karuizawas are part of this series) and they were equally incredibly cheap, a situation that we're not likely to witness anymore, I'm afraid.

Before I give you some more specific details of the bottles in this series, a word of caution: it would be extremely difficult for a collector not based in Japan to get hold of the complete series–even when you are based in Japan, it’s well-nigh impossible, you can take my word for it. The main reason for this is that these bottlings were not aimed at the whisky afficionado/collector, but at the accidental tourist. They were available at the distillery shop only and aimed at the kind of person who wouldn't dream of shelling out 10,000 yen for a bottle of "domestic whisky" (that's 99.9% of the population) but with an interest in trying something that they had probably never seen before: a whisky matured in wine casks. They actually looked like wine bottles and I almost missed them the first time I was there. I always suspected this was to trick people into buying something they thought was wine (of which there was plenty in the distillery shop), only to find out when they were home that they had actually bought whisky. The distillery people were probably confident enough (and rightfully so, I would say) that people would have been pleasantly surprised. Anyway, these bottles were very modestly priced as I mentioned before (4,000 yen for a bottle!), and so they were the perfect “omiyage” (souvenir) - to take back home for yourself or for friends / family - for those visiting the museum adjacent the distillery and for tourists, newly-weds, shopaholics and other people with a good reason or a good excuse to escape the hustle and bustle of the capital for a few days. Most of these bottles would have been opened and drunk not long after they were purchased. Another reason why it’s hard to get hold of them now is that they were bottled in small batches. I remember asking the distillery staff about this, and they said they would bottle a hundred or so and wait for those to sell out before bottling some more. That’s also the reason why you can find bottles drawn from the same cask but with a different bottling date.

As far as I know, nine casks were bottled between 2007 and 2011, just before the Karuizawa stock was bought up by Number One Drinks. The details (from left to right: age, cask number, bottling date(s) and abv) are as follows:

12yo [#5012] 15.06.2007 (63%)
13yo [#5021] 04.06.2008, 08.08.2008, 20.10.2008 (63%)
14yo [#5031] 17.09.2009 (66.2%)
14yo [#5036] 03.02.2010, 03.03.2010 (67.4%)
15yo [#5034] 14.07.2010 (66.7%)
15yo [#5028] 19.08.2010 (67.0%)
15yo [#5018] 16.12.2010 (68.7%)
15yo [#5027] 26.05.2011 (69.4%)
16yo [#5022] 12.07.2011 (69.7%)

The 12- and 13-year old were bottled at 500ml; afterwards, they switched to 480ml (that way they didn't have to fill the bottles all the way up to the top). They were sealed with the black wax people will be familiar with from the standard, original Karuizawa single cask bottlings. The 12-year old, however, is a bit special as that was sealed with red wax. Don't ask me why. This wax, incidentally, is a collector's nightmare - regardless of the colour. Sooner or later, the wax will break and your bottle will be open whether you like it or not. (This actually happened to my 13yo Rouge Cask bottle a few weeks ago - the only one I had... You can imagine I wasn't very pleasant company that evening.)

Some ex-red wine casks from this vintage (if you see cask number #50** you know what you've got!) have also been bottled by Number One Drinks (some "Noh" casks, some bottlings for private customers...) but they're in a different price range, as you can imagine.

When I see those slim, sexy Rouge Casks Karuizawas now - those rare beauties - I think of a time not so long ago, when people still had the chance to discover something absolutely stunning by accident, available (also in terms of price) to everyone and anyone willing to take a chance on something... willing to be seduced on the spot... and it makes me a little sad that it is just so much harder to have that experience now... The latest Karuizawa single cask release (over 400 bottles for TWE) sold out in less than 24 hours... but it's already back in Japan, on auction sites, for double the price. A sad state of affairs, if you ask me. Call me a romantic, but I do hope that somewhere in Japan, there is still a place - somewhere - where Karuizawa whisky is just waiting for people to fall in love with it... where neither the highest-bidder nor the fastest-clicker can get to it... where only serendipity can lead people to it.

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