On the Hunt: Karuizawa Whisky

Horacio Salinas

After tasting a dram of a hyper-rare Japanese whisky in a Bangkok bar, Lawrence Osborne traveled to its source on a mission to find more before it disappeared forever.

The bar I love most in Tokyo is called High Five, housed without ceremony on the fourth floor of a tiny entertainment mall called the Polestar Building, in the western part of Ginza. From the outside the building looks like a thousand other Japanese entertainment complexes; there’s a long, vertical neon list of bars and clubs, all beautifully neat and ordered.

High Five (No. 26 Polestar Bldg., 4th fl.; barhighfive.com) is one of those Japanese whisky bars that we, avid pursuers of rare Scotch, treat with calculated reverence. The formula is long established: a quiet, 12-seat bar; jazz; a barman in an immaculate bow tie, carving huge, barely irregular cubes of ice or shimmering ice balls that perfectly fit the glass. No drunks, no Johnnie Walker except for Chinese tourists, and a master of ceremonies who knows more about whisky than anyone you have ever met in a bar. There are also lacquered chopsticks and exquisite nibbles. Men are in suits.

For those of us who love Japanese whisky, Tokyo is a playground like no other. We can drink Hakushi, Yamazaki and Nikka in London or New York. But rare old Mars or bottles of 1958 Old Suntory? Not so easy. Even more difficult to find these days is a whisky I have become obsessed with in recent years: Karuizawa. Its overwhelming nose hits you as soon as you raise the glass, and its deep, brilliant flavors seem to come from another age. No whisky made today resembles it.

I first drank Karuizawa in my hometown, Bangkok, in a discreet Japanese speakeasy called Hailiang (Sukhumvit Soi 33), where a shot of the 1978 goes for $70 and a bottle for $2,000. Or I should say the bottle. There’s only one in the whole bar, and it’s half empty. The Japanese owner told me that he brings it over from Tokyo in his suitcase and pays off the Thai police to avoid the duty.

Ever since I paid up for a shot of the ’78, I’ve been hooked.

“Karuizawa,” High Five’s bartender, Hidetsugo Ueno, said as soon as I mentioned the name. “Now there’s a whisky!” There was a snowstorm that night, and Ueno was in chic red suspenders and a matching polka-dotted red tie. Since there were no customers, no Japanese TV stars in for a drink, he could chat. We lamented, to begin with, the slow decline of Japanese whisky sales. Ironically, the more the country’s whisky acquires a formidable global reputation, an elite position in the world of single malts, the less the Japanese drink it. “It’s been revived among young people,” Ueno said with a vague expression of disgust, “by the highball. That’s how most Japanese consume whisky—with soda and ice. But the whisky heyday of the postwar years is behind us.”

Most of the elite Japanese malts today are created by two companies, Suntory and Nikka. But, as Ueno-san says, whisky boomed in Japan after World War II, and there were many distilleries churning it out. It was the salaryman’s drink, a symbol of Westernized manliness and sophistication. Accordingly, the market was glutted with a slew of small-scale, eccentric whiskies, which have since been largely forgotten. Among the more extraordinary was Karuizawa, distilled at the foot of the forbidding, snowcapped Asama volcano between 1955 and 2001.

Ueno, it turned out, had a bottle of Asama Karuizawa at his bar. We tasted it—its stunningly powerful aroma almost laid me out—and he told me how increasingly rare Karuizawa whiskies are becoming: “This Asama we still have, but the older and rarer editions are disappearing fast. Look at this—” And forthwith he dredged up a bottle from under the bar. We had already tasted the Asama and also two bottles of 1999 marked “Bar Show 2012” on the labels. But this newcomer was different altogether. It was in a bottle with a bulbous glass stopper, and around it hung a gold chain with a plate that read “Uncompromising Work of Craftsmen.” The neck label was in kanji, but I could see it was a 17-year-old of some kind. Ueno said that this Karuizawa was probably the rarest whisky he had on the premises, but if I looked closely, I would see that there was literally only a drop left in the bottom of the bottle. We tilted it and the drop appeared. Hardly enough for half a dram. “It’s the last of this edition, and I almost don’t want to ever serve it,” he said. “I can’t find another bottle of this.”

Karuizawa’s whisky is a strange story. At the turn of the 20th century, Karuizawa itself, a resort town two hours northwest of Tokyo, became a fashionable vacation destination, decked out with Swiss-style timbered lodges and onsen hot spring baths nestled at the edges of cool pine forests. Back then, the area was quilted with vineyards. But in 1955, in a bid to capitalize on the postwar craze for whisky, an outfit called Mercian Wine Company opened the Karuizawa distillery. Whisky production expanded in 1962 and then slowly declined in the 1980s. The beer giant Kirin bought out Mercian and then, after deciding that making an elite single malt was not worth the bother financially, closed the plant in 2001. Karuizawa wine became more viable than its whisky.

Some whisky was produced until 2000 in limited quantities. And in 2011 the remaining barrels were moved to a distillery in Chichibu when the British-based Number One Drinks company acquired them. That company’s owner, Marcin Miller, is a serious devotee of Karuizawa whisky, but the original distillery is no more—the site is abandoned. The whisky itself, however, lives on. The last remaining stocks are being patiently and parsimoniously bottled year by year. It’s a slow death, then, but a lingering, seductive experience for the whisky drinker.

The Isetan luxury department store (3-14-1 Shinjuku; isetan.co.jp) in Shinjuku occasionally sells single cask bottlings of Karuizawa for about $100 a bottle, but speculation is rampant around the older editions. The 1960, for example, is among the oldest Japanese whiskies in commercial circulation, matured in Spanish-oak sherry vats and presented for sale in traditional Japanese puzzle boxes made from the original oak. The scarce 41 bottles retail for a mild $20,000 each. What feeds this—sometimes frenzied—speculation is the knowledge among collectors that Karuizawa single malt is a finite resource, dwindling with every sip, never to return.

Night by night I set out through driving snow to the bars most likely to stash the treasure in my sights. I was sure that High Five could not be the only bar in Tokyo to stock an ancient bottle of Karuizawa. I began, therefore, at the beautiful Peter bar (1-8-1 Yurakucho; tokyo.peninsula.com) at the top of the Peninsula hotel, a fine bar by any standards (and an even better restaurant). I was offered a remarkable whisky, the Peninsula Owner’s Cask, distilled in 1984, which is among the most expensive (and tasty) glasses of whisky in Tokyo; there are only 27 bottles of it left, and they go for $570 each. But still the Peter had no Karuizawa. I left and walked a block or two down to the old Imperial hotel, where one of my favorite bars, the Old Imperial (1-1-1 Uchisaiwaicho; imperialhotel.co.jp), is tucked in a handsome back room on the first floor, but there was no Karuizawa there, either. I moved on again. This time I tried the lofty bar of the Park Hyatt (3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku; tokyo.park.hyatt.com) in Shinjuku, surely Tokyo’s most famous watering hole after Bill Murray’s cinematic tussle with Suntory in Lost in Translation. But alas, no Karuizawa in that vast library of whiskies; the barman merely shrugged sadly. I went back to Ginza and stumbled down the dim steps to Star Bar (Sankosha Bldg., 1st fl., 1-5-13 Ginza; starbar.jp), where I was told that they had run out of Karuizawa long ago. I got a Hakushu highball instead.

The following night, however, I went back to Shinjuku and sought out an establishment called Shot Bar Zoetrope (Gaia Bldg. No. 4, 3rd fl.; 81-3/3363-0162). It’s a hallowed place to all Japanese aficionados of the golden nectar, and the owner, Atsushi Horigami, likes to project silent Buster Keaton movies onto a wall to the sounds of Led Zeppelin as he serves up his shots. Here, at last, were a few precious bottles of Karuizawa: a vintage 1971 for $58 a glass, a 1979 single cask (the cask number, 7752, clearly marked) and a 1981 for $40 a glass. In a Hawaiian shirt, the elegant, white-bearded Horigami threw up his hands as soon as we began to talk about Karuizawa.

“All I can say is they had shit PR! That company made bad wine, and they never promoted their whisky as they should have done,” he said. “Listen, have you ever drunk this?” He pulled out a bottle of ten-year Karuizawa called Kohaku, and we tried it. It had the brand’s signature fierceness and refinement, two qualities that are hard to marry in a whisky. I complained to him that it was remarkably hard to find these bottles in Tokyo, the whisky capital of the world. “They’re running out,” he said. “For that matter, I can’t say how long mine will last.” Why didn’t I go to Karuizawa itself, he suggested, and see what I could find there? “I heard there’s even a whisky bar there,” he added. “Though the distillery is closed. People go there to ski.”

A few days later, I took the high-speed Shinkansen train out to the town beneath the Asama volcano. I was not slow to notice a small bar in the lobby of the Prince hotel, which boasted a single bottle of Karuizawa called 1738. The problem was that no one was ever at the bar to serve it. In the reception area, I discovered why people came to Karuizawa. A couple of elderly ladies were being told that John Lennon had once visited. I heard the words “Japanese girlfriend,” “Lennon-san.” I wandered around the freezing and mostly deserted town. At its edges were ghostly pine groves and mountain streams, luxury retail stores filled with locally made honey and shelves of suspicious-looking Karuizawa wine. Curious, I went into a few liquor stores and gamely asked for some Karuizawa whisky instead. The men shook their heads as if I had asked for opium.

Finally, I found someone who knew of the whisky bar I had heard about in Tokyo. It was, it transpired, called Ichi-Mu-An (735-1 Nagakura; 81-26/745-7966), and it was housed in a humble shack on a far outer lane of the town. In drifting snow, I took a taxi there and ended up parked outside what looked like a boarded-up halfway house at the top of a flight of steps. The lights were off, and the wind howled down an empty road. I turned to the driver, who looked at his watch and said, “It’s 6:50. It doesn’t open until 7.”

So I waited on the street, half frozen, until—at one minute to seven—the fairy lights suddenly all came on and the miserable shack was magically transformed into a kind of David Lynch fantasy of a whisky bar. I went in.

It was, in actuality, a handsome retro bar with a gas heater in one corner and a trophy bottle of Blanton’s bourbon with little metal figures of Kentucky racehorses. The barman bowed deeply and admitted that he knew no English. “Karuizawa,” I said. “Whis-kee.” He bowed again, tutted and said that was the one whisky he didn’t have. He seemed genuinely apologetic. I asked him if John Lennon had drunk there. “It is not possible,” he said gravely. “I am sorry.”

After a few shots of Hakushu, I went out into the cold, and the barman followed me out. We waited for the taxi to come, he in his flimsy shirtsleeves, and as the taxi finally pulled away, I looked over and saw him still standing there in the arctic wind and snow, bowing to see me off. The Japanese barman: He knows his service.

As soon as I returned to Tokyo, I went back to Ginza, this time to a tiny but plush izakaya and bar I know called Enji (JUNO Bldg., ground fl.; 81-3/5537-5300), in the JUNO Building. Strangely enough, it’s a place devoted entirely to agricultural products and dishes from Karuizawa. I sat at the bar and got myself a small tablet of the famed smoked cheese (served hot with a fork) and then asked the barman the inevitable question. “Alas—” he began, but then he caught the look in my eye and relented. “Alright, I have a bottle under the counter that I don’t sell. Just for you, since you came all the way from Bangkok.”

And thus, my last bottle of Karuizawa. It was square, with labels entirely in kanji, but I could see the date, 1981, and the aroma when a drop or two was poured was by now instantly recognizable. He allowed me a smidgen, just enough to coat the tongue, and after I had tasted, we fell silent for a few moments, and there was a telepathic agreement. I asked him how much a shot of this would cost a serious drinker, but he shook his head.

“I have dozens of whiskies here, as you can see. Great whiskies, even,” he said. “But the Karuizawa is not for sale. I think now you know why.”

Sip and Stay

Two elegant endpoints for a Tokyo whisky crawl and one idyllic destination for a Karuizawa pilgrimage.

The Conrad Tokyo
Tucked away 28 floors up in the initially confusing Shiodome complex, the Conrad is a sleek place with beautiful, spacious rooms overlooking Tokyo Bay and the historic Hamarikyu Gardens. Its restaurants are dramatic and of excellent quality, especially China Blue. Service, as everywhere in Tokyo, is simply unparalleled. Rooms start at $500; 1-9-1 Higashi-Shinbashi; 81-3/6388-8000; conradhotels3.hilton.com.

The Peninsula
The Peninsula stands right at the corner of the Imperial Palace, a few blocks from Yurakucho and the edge of Ginza. Rooms facing the palace gardens are among the most atmospheric in the city. It’s a warm and cosmopolitan hotel, with quiet, sophisticated service and excellent restaurants; Peter, on the top floor, has sweeping views and also boasts a pleasant nocturnal bar. Afternoon tea in the lobby is filled with Japanese grande dames sipping their oolong and nibbling at scones. Rooms start at $420; 1-8-1 Yurakucho; 81-3/6270-2888; tokyo.peninsula.com.

The Prince Karuizawa
Karuizawa is a ski town, and the Prince is a family resort whose facilities directly adjoin the slopes. It’s a very old-fashioned place, with a slightly lugubrious restaurant but wonderfully comfortable and well-heated rooms. There is also an onsen hot spring, which makes staying there worth it just for the daily therapeutic baths. Service is unfailingly excellent, though some knowledge of Japanese is a decided advantage. Rooms start at $300; 1016-75 Karuizawa; 81-26/742-1112; princehotels.com.