I’ve just begun reading the March issue of Whisky Magazine and in this edition there is a quite significant post in regards to Karuizawa. The Whisky Magazine Index collates the prices of live auction sites over a 12 month period and has been running since 2007. Since inception, The Macallan has taken top spot for whisky prices each year. Well each year up until 2015. This was the year that a Japanese Whisky Distillery took over the number 1 position and unsurprisingly it was Karuizwa. To save a lengthy explanation in this post as to how the index works you can check out the following link.
Now back to unsurprisingly, I only say this because it is well known now in the whisky world the stratospheric prices being fetched by Karuizawa on the auction circuit. The WMI shows the average price for Karuizawa’s in 2015 at a scarcely believable GBP2,500 a bottle compared to second place Macallan GBP1,700. I also agree with WM’s assessment that prices consolidated in the second half of the year rather than any significant fall.
What is surprising is how quickly it has happened since Japanese whisky gained a foot hold in markets outside of Japan. Karuizwa produced and sold whiskies for decades including single casks in Japan before we starting seeing them outside of their homeland. It has been correctly stated a number of times that the Japanese whisky industry was in the doldrums for many years in Japan. Karuizawa was not much better known in Japan for all those years than it was outside of Japan. I would actually go as far as saying unloved for the most part in Japan, Hanyu the same. The bigger companies such as Nikka and Suntory could still churn out enough blended whiskies during that time to continue viable production runs. Of course this lack of love for Japanese whisky at home meant the smaller players either closed or stopped production of whisky in favor of producing other types of alcohol. Yes, we know that that it was a decision by the Japanese conglomerate Kirin to close Karuizawa, but if you think about the conditions at the time, from a purely corporate perspective there was no reason to keep it open.
Now for some personal perspective on Karuizwa whisky. Firstly, what is the formula to get to the number 1 spot for auction prices from what was really a base of zero about 7 years ago. Number one has to be lucky in historic timing. As the planet gets smaller through the world wide web, the upper middle and wealthy classes swell in developing economies and peoples tastes broaden, the conditions are right for something unknown to become a sensation. This is not just in regards to Karuizawa but Japanese whisky as a whole. Secondly was a company founded by non Japanese natives who took a leap of faith to distribute Karuizawa, Hanyu and Chichibu in the UK/Europe because the Japanese who owned these companies where never going to do that under the conditions in Japan at the time. That distribution began right around the time the first conditions where coming into play outside of Japan. Thirdly, that company have also proven to be brilliant at marketing. Fourthly, the world’s best known and influential whisky blogger writes for the most part dazzling high scoring reviews of Karuizawa and writes this type of review for a significant number of bottling’s basically since Karuizawa was first released outside of Japan. Fifth would be rarity, Karuizawa will always be rarer than any of the high prices Scottish whisky distilleries listed on the index. Sixth, the Japanese have fallen in love with their own whisky in the last 18 months and are now alert to the prices they can sell them for. Lastly myth, how many of these Karuizawa are actually being opened at these prices and how what sort of cross section of tasting reviews are there on the web and that includes whisky forums driven by consumers? Compared to Scottish whisky very few in either scenario. A lot of reviews have been by the retailers who are selling them so I am sure they are totally unbiased : ). So what are we basing the legend on, in reality bugger all! Still, if you are retailer or collector who is buying and selling Karuizawa for a profit, you are more than happy to perpetuate the myth even if you have never tasted a Karuizawa in your life.
Personally I think Karuizawa is the most overrated whisky distillery in the world and have found a number of bottling that I just cannot drink, certainly more than from any other Japanese distillery. Basically the one’s I can’t drink just sit in the cupboard though I have allowed some family to use them to drink with their favorite mixer. This is not to say I have not tasted some very good to excellent Karuizawa, it’s just they are not anything like equal to the legend to my tastes.
To finish I’ll add that there are 5 Japanese distilleries/brands listed in the top 25 of the index in 2015, the others being Hanyu, Yamazki, Hibiki and Nikka. Hanyu is sitting at number 6 and although the rise in prices for 2015 were 5.6% compared to Karuizawa’s 7.4% I believe the greatest part of the percentage for Hanyu was in the second half of the year’s compared to Karuizawa where it was in the first half of the year. Any bets that in the next few years it will be a one-two for Japanese whiskies at the top of the index……………
Nose: Some classic Hanyu notes of juicy stone fruits and aromatic woods. Red grapes, port pipe whisky, butter menthol’s, werther’s originals and white wine gums. Palate: Sweet fruit sherbets, vanilla, werther’s originals, white peaches, nectarines, cocoa. Sandalwood, ginger bread and butter menthol’s. Finish: White peaches, white nectarines, port pipe whisky, ginger bread, vanilla and butter menthol’s. Last Word: Can’t really say what the Mizunara Heads adds to this one. Pretty much a classic style of Hanyu which I generally prefer over the cask finished versions.
Nose: Quite oaky. Fried banana’s, oranges, apricots, bran, pepper, Makers Mark or similar type bourbon. Palate: Caramelized orange juice, fried banana’s, fresh cream. pepper, rye, the Makers Mark, oily and oaky. Finish: Cream, oranges, savory shapes biscuits, fried banana’s, olive oil, drying oak. Last Word: Very much a bourbonesque style of whisky. A bit heavy on the oak.
Nose: Oak, caramel, wood spices, ginger bread, figs. Immediately Yamazaki/Japanese whisky if you know what I mean. Palate: Lovely tangy spiciness. Ginger bread, tobacco, cloves, fig jam, cashews, pepper, cola, oak, cocoa, peanut butter. Tasty! Finish: Medium length on oak, oak, cocoa, ginger bread, fig jam, tobacco and peanut butter. Last Word:: For mine easily the most successful of the no age statement replacement single malt bottling’s from Nikka and Suntory. This is my 3rd bottle in the last 12 months and I have been very satisfied each time. Happy enough to have this as a subsitute for the 12YO at about 20-30 bucks less.
Nose: Light and crisp. Pear slices, lemons, grapefruit, moss/wet forest, a little acetone. Palate: Crisp and clean. A little oily, pears, almonds, nougat, cloves, pepper, wet moss. Finish: Short on pears, cloves and pepper. Last Word: Some of the Hakushu distillery profile is there such as crisp mountain spring water, earthiness and pepper. The palate however lacks enough satisfying body and complexity and the finish is very short. Where is the nicely integrated peat I would normally expect? I’ve tried several bottles of this and have always been left underwhelmed. Not a patch on the 12YO which I poured a dram of to taste side by side.
Rating: 80/100 only because the base spirit itself was distilled with obvious care.
Nose: Lots of juicy tropical fruits. Oak, toffee, wood spices. Palate: Mouth coating toffee, raisins, rhubarb, dates, a mix of savory and wood spices, oak, chocolate, and menthol. Certainly a lot more satisfying than the regular Hibiki Harmony. Finish: Toffee, spices, oak and menthol. Last Word: For mine this one is actually more malty and less grainy that the 12, 17 and 21 year old Hibiki’s. While not hugely complex it has been well blended for good balance. Also seems to have a large component of aged whiskies in the mix. If like me you find the regular Hibiki Harmony a bit of an embarrassment for Suntory, this is definitely more that one step in the right direction. Not cheap for a NAS blend but I personally prefer this to the Hibiki 12YO. Excellent session whisky as I always find myself pouring more than one.
*Note: This is one of those travel exclusive whiskies so only sold in duty free stores but more than just a fancy label on the regular product like many are.
Nose: Needs a lot of water to reveal any nuances. Tequila like pepper. Barley, fresh cut timber, orange peel, apricot jam, hint of ash. Palate: Without water this is an overpowering whisky. Big alcohol, big heat. Not cheap alcohol, just too full on. With water there is Brazil nuts, pepper, nougat, spearmint, barley and apricot jam. Finish: All of the flavors fade quickly except for the pepper that coats the mouth and hangs on for an age. Last Word: Too hard hitting at full strength, it takes a lot of water to bring this one to heel. Even then it is not a particularly complex or cohesive whisky.
*Note: This one is was commissioned by Liquors Hasegawa to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Yaechika Mall at Tokyo Station.
Nose: Sherry, grapefruit, wood stain, an earthy note, dried mixed citrus peel, dried pears, tobacco. Palate: Well the tobacco is still present but you wouldn’t think you were tasting the same whisky you have been nosing. Candy coated nuts, earthy peat, marzipan, white peaches, cashews, a mix of sweet and savory spices, tinned plums, menthol. Really quite moreish, I kept pouring more drams while writing up these notes. Finish: Tobacco, earthy peat, cashews and menthol. Last Word: A well sorted blend of old and new stock and different cask types. Doesn’t really give any clues to the distiller as it is not like any previous offering from Mars Whisky I have tasted before.
Nose: Soft. Caramel, lemon, grapefruit, mixed dried peel, hint of wildflowers. Palate: Caramel, leather, sweet tobacco, vanilla, cinnamon, honey, brazil nuts, dried pears, red onion, herbaceous especially rosemary. Finish: Good length. Herbaceous, dried pears, vanilla, red onion, leather and sweet tobacco.
Last Word: If you have tasted a few grain whiskies you will find this quite a surprise packet in regards to the depth and complexity of the palate. Very tasty and the spirit is of a high quality. Kicks Suntory’s latest Chita Grain NAS whisky straight to the curb.
Nose: Caramel, vanilla, banana, creamed corn, bread dough, paprika. Also a fair whiff of base alcohol/acetone. Palate: Banana, butter, creamed corn, licorice, bread dough. Not complex but that is often the norm with young, bourbon barrel aged grain whiskies. There’s alcoholic bite not from the abv strength, but from youth. Finish: Is short on paprika, creamed corm, banana, licorice and base alcohol. Last Word: Really not something to savor as a ‘sipping’ whisky and there are cheaper options in Japan that could be used in something like a highball.
2015 was a massive year of change for Japanese Whisky though let’s start with the one thing that definitely hasn’t changed, the stratospheric prices of some Japanese whisky. This is really a continuation of what has been happening for a few years now but there were also record prices paid for a single bottle and a single lot at auction. Hanyu and Karuizawa continue to lead in this respect but really, any single cask or limited release Japanese whisky from all distilleries are not going to be cheap. That’s the halo effect cascading down from the “big” two. Over the last 12 months from my observations, prices have still been on an upward trend overall. Prices must be nearing a practical limit though except for most sort after rarest/oldest Japanese whiskies.
So why have the prices of Japanese whisky been outstripping their Scottish cousins of comparable age, and quality. Well I use the term quality in relation to how they are rated by both whisky writers and whisky enthusiasts in general, using a point scoring system out of 100. I often read comments from punters such as why would I buy a Japanese Whisky that has a rating of 90/100 for many times the prices of a comparable Scottish whisky. The first answer I would give is rarity. Wait a minute you may say, isn’t a single cask of 300 bottles of Scottish whisky from a closed distillery as rare as a comparable single cask from a closed Japanese whisky? Only in relation to the number of bottles produced from those casks. If you check out whiskybase the entire number bottles from the 21 Japanese whisky listed is 1732. Scotland has 157 distilleries and Macallan alone has 1860 bottlings listed, Caol Ila almost 2500. Closed distillery Port Ellen as another example has 970 bottlings listed and has a similar overall rating to Karuizawa which has the highest number of bottles listed of any of the Japanese whisky distilleries at less than half of Port Ellen, 400. Now I have no idea how many casks of Port Ellen are left but we all know that there are very few casks of Karuizawa left in relative terms and even less of Hanyu. I can only recall 1 single cask bottling of Yamazaki this year and none from Hakushu. Rarity from my observations will always outstrip quality when it comes to prices and Japanese whisky, especially rare and single cask whisky, is and ever will be far rarer than rare and single cask bottlings from Scotland. Supply and demand!
Another reason for the high prices of Japanese Whisky is the markets where it can be bought. There is a certain arrogance in the west that trends and opinions that are found there are universal. The fact is Asia sets it own trends. Cashed up buyers in Asia love Japanese whisky and they also do their homework. They know the rarity value of Japanese whisky. Now even with the Chinese economy slowing down and dragging other Asian economies with it, the number of people with a fair amount of disposable income is growing. We are also talking about an area with billions of people especially if your include India which happens to have the largest middle class in the world. Ok, so the middle class probably isn’t spending a couple of grand on a bottle of whisky but if there is middle class of 400 million in that country the upper middle and wealthy classes will also be large in size. Plenty of cash to splash. There is also a cultural aspect where it is prestigious to have rare stuff and the expense be damned. I’m sure that many would be surprised that some of the biggest prices paid at the record breaking auction for Japanese whisky were from Malaysia and Indonesia.
So what about the prices of standard age statement Japanese Whiskies. Unfortunately as Nikka are no longer producing age statement single malt whiskies, those standard age statement whiskies that are still left are all selling for anything between two to 5 times(in the case of Yoichi 20YO) the retail price on the resale market. I’m not even sure how long age statement Hakushu and Yamazaki single Malts will be available. The largest discount liquor store chain in Australia were selling 10 different bottling’s of Japanese Whisky. For a few weeks now they have been out of stock of Yamazaki 12 and Hibiki 12 and 17 year olds and no notification of a restock.
One positive outcome of the big players dropping some of their age statement whiskies and the general rise in popularity of Japanese Whisky in it’s homeland is that the smaller Japanese Whisky Distilleries are not only surviving but thriving. The domestic market alone can support these distilleries which gives them the opportunity to expand outside of Japan. The previously mentioned Australian discount liquor store is now stocking Mars Awai Tradition blended whisky. This would have been inconceivable even a year ago.
Things get a little tougher when I cast a critical eye over the offering’s from Nikka and Suntory that have replaced or are supplementing their whisky ranges.
Hibiki Harmony is fairly insipid and Chita Single Grain NAS is young and a bit rough around the edges.
Yamazaki Distillers Reserve NAS I think is an excellent representation of both the Yamazaki distillery and Japanese whisky in general. I’ve bought and opened 4 bottles of the Yama NAS this year. Hakushu Distillers Reserve NAS is lacking if you have tried Hakushu 12 or even the old 10YO.
Nikka Coffey Malt NAS I found a bit strange but I know others who really like it and the Nikka Coffey Grain NAS is a far more convincing effort than the Chita Single Grain NAS. I would certainly buy another bottle of the Nikka Coffey Grain.
Miyagikyo Single Malt NAS is nice and I’m not unhappy about having a couple of spare bottles. Yoichi Single Malt NAS in a big disappointment and I wish I would have tried before I loaded up on spares. I would add that I prefer Nikka From the Barrel, Nikka Pure Malt White and Nikka Pure Malt over both of the new Single Malt NAS bottling’s.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how Nikka and Suntory are going to manage expectations with these new bottling’s and in the case of Nikka with no standard age statement single malt whiskies at all. I mean, if you were just getting into Japanese whisky after reading reviews of Yoichi/Miyagikyo Age Statement bottling’s and you bought a bottle of the NAS, you really would be asking what all the fuss was about and just go buy a 10-12YO Scottish single malt instead. If your already a fan of Japanese whisky and can’t afford hundreds or thousands of dollars on the rare stuff(I’m one of those by the way), you will still be disappointed at least in regards to Nikka and Suntory stuff. Will this have been a big expansion proceeded by a big contraction for Japanese whisky from Suntory and Nikka. My only saving grace is that I bought enough when it was cheaper and can probably get through with what I already have until age statement SM whisky hits the stores again.
Of the other open distilleries I tasted some fine whiskies from Kirin, Akashi, Mars and Chichibu in 2015 though I wasn’t a fan of Mars Cosmo. Chichibu had quite a few bottling’s this year, unfortunately most were only available in Japan. I find Kirin under rated but again hard to find outside of Japan and I have to hand it to the little White Oak(Akashi), who despite their tiny output happily experiment with different cask maturation. Do a pretty good job of it as well.
So there you have it, some constants still in play such as the price of some Japanese whisky, and some huge changes where the ramifications are still unknown. Japanese whisky has also finally become a big hit domestically after many years in the doldrums.
Wishing all the readers of the Japanese Whisky Review and safe and happy festive season and a great 2016.
Nose: Mixed nuts, toffee, apricots, peaches, malt. Quite a light nose. Palate: Mixed nuts, peanut butter, ginger, cola, oak, leather, a little rhubarb, menthol. Oily mouth feel. Finish: Short on the mixed nuts, peanut butter, leather, rhubarb and menthol. Last Word: The quality of the spirit is there no doubt. Nothing cheap or nasty about it though it’s not particularly complex. This whisky has a big problem though, it’s not very Yoichi. Where’s the peat, the maritime notes and flavors, the lovely smoke that magically appears after a number of seconds then rolls around the palate and compliments the usual stone fruits? Doesn’t have that bubblegum thing that’s often found in Nikka/Yoichi whisky either. Come on Nikka, if this is going to be the staple Yoichi single malt for the foreseeable future, lovers of Yoichi whisky deserve a whisky that truly represents the style we have come to expect from that great distillery.
Rating: 80/100 as a single malt whisky, 78/100 as a Yoichi whisky
Nose: Barley sugars, red apples, dried pears, lemon pie, nougat, apricots, subtle wild flowers. Palate: Lemon sherbet, barley sugars, dried pears, oak, nougat, macadamia nuts, marzipan, white pepper, spearmint, a little smoke and ash. Finish: Nougat, macadamia nuts, barley, oak, ash, mineralized water. Last Word: This is a smooth and subtle style of whisky with enough quality and complexity for the price point in Japan. Nice summer sipper. As this will be the main single malt offering from Miyagikyo for a number of years to come I hope they will tweak the make up from time to time to give us some variety. I have open bottles of both the 12 and 15 year olds and they are definitely bolder and more complex whiskies.
Nose: Pretty much a replica of the 2014 limited edition posted below. This one has a little more of the sandalwood and is a tad sweeter with vanilla, fruit tingles added. Palate: Creamier/richer than the 2014 and I would say the oak is a little better integrated/balanced. Apart from that we still have the raisins, licorice, leather, tobacco, cloves, papaya and brazil nuts.
Finish: As per the 2014 limited with the vanilla added. Maybe a little more bourbon cask in this one. Last word: Richer(in a good way) and a bit better balances than the 2014.
Nose: A fair amount of oak indicates a mix that contains a decent amount of aged malt whisky. Toffee, maple syrup on toasted crumpets, rosehip, over ripe peaches, licorice, maltesers, ginger bread and sandalwood. Palate: Ginger ale, raisins, pepper, oak, cloves. papaya, licorice, tobacco, brazil nuts, menthol. Finish: Tobacco, brazil nuts, licorice, cloves and drying oak. Last Word: Solid NAS whisky that clearly contains plenty of aged malt whisky.
Nose: Candied nuts, caramelized orange slices, mixed peel, sweet spices, cloves, cola, leather. Palate: Mixed peel, caramelized orange slices, caramel, black cherries, wood stain, peach fuzz, cola, red grapes, Christmas cake. Finish: Leather, mixed peel, cola, cloves and the caramelized orange slices. Last Word: Nice complexity and I would say a well rounded and refined Karuizawa.
Tonight at Bonham’s Auction Hong Kong a world record price was achieved for a single bottle of Japanese whisky. The bottling, a Karuizawa 1960 52YO Cask #5627 one of 41 bottles. Price with buyers premium was approximately US118,000, Euro105,000, GBP77,000. Original Price was GBP12,500 back in 2013. Also as reported in a recent post, an almost complete collection of Ichiro’s Card series was up for sale. This lot sold with buyers premium for approximately USD490,000, Euro436,000, GBP319,000. Obviously this is also a record for a single combined lot of Japanese whisky. I reckon that they would have cost no more than around USD10,000 if you were lucky to buy them all at retail prices. Share markets in turmoil…… seems at least for now we have a new ‘investment’ winner, or like gold, a bulwark during hard economic times?
Nose: Dried pears, apricots, fresh cut timber, hay, stewed apples, maple syrup and custard apple. Palate: Stewed apples with currants, custard apples, dried pears, hay, bran, malt, fresh cut timber, Arnott’s savory shape biscuits, maple syrup on toast. Finish: Custard apples, malt, pears, hay and the savory shapes. Last Word: Not stellar by any means but the spirit is still of very good quality for the age.
Well the catalogue is out for Bonham’s Hong Kong auction on August the 28th 2015. Masses of Japanese whisky on offer but the highlight would have to be an entire Ichiro’s Malt Card Series being sold as one lot. I say entire but to my mind the collection is not complete. There were 2 bottling’s of the Ace of Spades and this collection has only one of them. Yes they were from the same cask but the release was staggered, one bottling being 55%abv and one being 55.7%abv. Obviously this also means one spent a little longer in the cask so is a bit older in whisky terms and as it was aged in oak the profile will be slightly different. Also I believe the auction catalogue for the bottling of the Ace of Spades being sold contains an error. They say it is the bottling 113 of 300 but this should have an ABV of 55.7% not the 55% listed in the catalogue. The first series of 122 bottles(in total) was the 55% version.
The catalogue estimate, HK$ 1.8 million – 2.4 million = USD$232,000 – $310,000
Gulp, not to shabby for a collection of whiskies that if you paid retail would not have cost more than USD10,000 in total. The cheapest bottling was about 60 bucks and I paid about 350 bucks for the most expensive, the Joker Monochrome. Also hard to believe is that this upswing in value happened in less than 10 years.
***Note: I have already been updated and I apologize for any discrepancies in my original post but the are 4 double cards in the series. Ultimately this extends to the fact that the series for sale is not complete. Thanks to Ulf Buxrud for the clarification. Ichiro’s Malt Full Card Series
Nose: Dark cherries, cracked pepper, Christmas cake, marmalade, creamed corn, black currents, balsamic, some burnt twigs. Palate: A richness that belies it’s young age. Pretty much follows the nose but adds ginger bread, sweetened tea, nutmeg, cocoa, creamed sherry and tangy orange. Finish: Creamed sherry, peppermint, sweetened tea, tobacco, raisins and the tangy orange. Last Word: Nicely balanced whisky with a maturity to the package beyond it’s age and the Oloroso cask finish adds richness and fullness. I’ve given this whisky to a few people to try and they have all enjoyed it.
*Note: Although I have not been able to confirm 100% the origin of the Ariake Virgin Casks used for this whisky, you can read about the Ariake Cooperage here at Whiskies R Us