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Issue 51 - Carving out a niche (Karuizawa)

Whisky Magazine Issue 51
October 2005


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Carving out a niche (Karuizawa)

Karuizawa is one of Japan's smaller and lesser known distilleries.But as Dave Broom found out, it's producing some fine and unusual whisky

The landscape is strobing past the train window. The concrete of the city has been left behind and we're climbing.

House:tunnel:field:tunnel:orchard:tunnel: cliff:tunnel:bridge:tunnel:river:space.The sudden change from cluttered urban plain to mountain takes you by surprise. Part of this is down to the speed of the train itself, but Japan, we tend to forget, is rural.

The train slows and Ryoji Takata and I get out. It's face-tingling cold in the town of Miyota-cho. There's a Buddhist shrine next to the platform and around us roll snowcovered mountains.

People with skis push past us. We also head off towards the hills.

“Mount Asama,” Takata points. “Can you see the smoke?” What I'd taken to be clouds hovering over the snowy dome of the mountain which dominates the view are in fact signs of volcanic life. As the car pulls into a small clutch of black-walled buildings I wonder whether this really the wisest place to build a distillery.

During coffee and pickles, Takata, head of production at Mercian, begins to unfold the story of Japan's leastknown distillery, Karuizawa. It soon becomes apparent that there is nothing straightforward about this place.

Fifty years ago, this site was a vineyard and these buildings housed a winery. Its then owner, Daikoku-budoshu, decided to enter Japan's infant whisky business. In 1962, it merged with current owner, Mercian.

Karuizawa, though, has evolved in a different way to its rivals. Suntory and Nikka's sites are huge, sprawling...

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