Whisky Auctioneer, a UK based auction house, has announced an exclusive auction of the largest know collection of Karuzizawa whisky. 290 bottles in total and while nothing like their claim of “includes close to every expression created by the renowned Japanese distillery”, Whiskybase lists 460 expressions, it is still very impressive. The lots include the 1960 pictured.
According to the website the lots are being sold individually and while there may be a record price broken here or there for individual bottling’s, I would have loved to have seen a single lot auction where I’m sure the single lot price would have been smashed for any collection of whisky. Auction kicks off on the 5th of April and runs through to 17th of April. FYI, with the prices of Karuizawa these days I didn’t bother registering to bid : ).
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……………