You just need to utter the word ‘Karuizawa’ to make many whisky fans go weak at the knees – the heavily-sherried malts from this Japanese town’s eponymous distillery, famously mothballed in 2000, have become so rare and sought-after they frequently fetch tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Now, after two decades of silence, the town is embarking on a new chapter in its distilling history with the launch of Karuizawa Distillers – a company that’s hoping to bring first-class whisky-making back to the region with the launch of Komoro Distillery.
Karuizawa Distillers’ CEO and founder is Koji Shimaoka, a former MD of Citibank and long-time Karuizawa resident. ‘I saw the iconic Karuizawa Distillery rise and fall,’ he says. ‘And as a whisky lover and local I felt obliged to protect its legacy.’
It took Shimaoka five years of searching before he found the perfect site: a woodland clearing in the foothills of Mount Asama, some seven miles away. ‘It had all the right conditions for making whisky – a cool maturation climate, similar to Speyside, and plentiful water with a high mineral content, which you need for good fermentation,’ he says. ‘But I also chose the location because I wanted the distillery to be a nice place for people to visit, and it has gorgeous views.’
He still had to hire a distiller. And that lead to arguably his biggest coup: the appointment of former master blender of multi-award-winning Taiwanese malt Kavalan, Ian Chang, to be Karuizawa Distillers’ master blender and vice president.
Taiwan and Japan may look close on the map, says Chang, but when it comes to whisky maturation, they are worlds away. ‘In a hot climate like Taiwan, it is very hard to make a whisky with an age statement because the angel’s share is around 15 per cent a year – it matures much faster and can quickly become very woody and bitter,’ he explains. ‘The angel’s share in Komoro, on the other hand, is less than two per cent – and that much cooler climate allows you to create whisky with more delicate flavour and texture. I realised it was the perfect opportunity to try making whisky with an age statement. I already loved Japanese culture and cuisine – so when Koji approached me about the project, without hesitation, I said yes.’
The $15m Komoro Distillery will have just one pair of stills, made by the renowned Forsyths of Rothes in Scotland. But in other ways it will be equipped to play many different tunes, says Chang. ‘The main way we will alter the character of the new make will be by changing the “cut point” [where the fraction of the distillation kept for drinking begins and ends]. We will make some lightly peated whisky. And we will also use lots of different wood and cask types to create different flavours and characters.’
‘Our main focus will be mizunara, or Japanese oak, which has a temple-like woody, incense-smoky character. It’s unusual to have such a focus on mizunara because it’s about ten times more expensive than American oak. But we are a Japanese distillery, so we wanted to use Japanese wood.’
Sherry casks will also play a big part in Komoro recipes – ‘not just oloroso but also fino and amontillado,’ says Chang.
‘And we will also be looking at ways we can speed up maturation naturally by using different oak types, smaller casks and STR technology [which involves re-conditioning – and thus revitalising – casks].’
In Japan, whisky is still viewed as an old man’s drink; we want to make the distillery friendly for young people, women and families
What Komoro malt will not be, Shimaoka adds, is a facsimile of Karuizawa. ‘It would be a waste of Ian’s talent to recreate the old style – and anyway it’s almost impossible, too much has changed. I want Ian to use his talent to create something far better – I want to win the golden award. That is our goal.’
The distillery, designed by Tokyo architects Sogo Aud, will be clad in floor-to-ceiling glass to make the most of the views both inside and out. It will also have a 1,500 sq metre visitors centre, offering tastings and tours as well as a more in-depth Whisky Academy.
‘In Japan, whisky is still viewed very much as an old man’s drink,’ says Shimaoka. ‘We want to make the distillery friendly for young people, women and families. Ultimately, we hope to have more than 100,000 visitors a year.’
If all goes to plan distilling will commence in March 2023 and the visitor’s centre will open to the public in May.
The first release from Komoro Distillery, scheduled for 2026, will be a limited-edition set of six 200ml port cask-aged whiskies, priced at $525. Do the maths and it’s clear, even then, this malt will barely be three years old. ‘But even in that short time I am confident I can create something quite mature,’ says Chang. It was previewed at a whisky fair in Taiwan recently and all 500 sets have already sold out.
Komoro Distillery, of course, is just the first in what Shimaoko hopes will eventually be a portfolio of distilleries. ‘Komoro is our high-end distillery – but we also want to do something in a city centre, something on a bigger scale. We have big plans. Ultimately, we want to be in the top three producers of single malt in Japan, in terms of volume. If not number one.’
It’s fighting talk – but this is without a doubt one outfit to keep an eye on.