Rare Karuizawa 1981 Single Cask Whisky ‘The Legend Of Asama’ To Be Released

By Gary Carter / September 5, 2021

Japan’s former Karuizawa Distillery is prized for some of the most collectable single malt whisky across the island nation. The latest single cask set launched under this name, encased in bespoke Glencairn Crystal glassware and lunawood casing, looks to top the wanted lists again.

The long-gone distillery’s very rare 1981 vintage single cask malt whiskies are being released in exclusive sets, with each including two bottles of the vintage Japanese liquid, one from each of two remaining casks (no. 4059 and 6183). Only 30 sets of ‘The Legend of Asama’ are available and they will be released over a three-year period, according to a statement from the whisky bottler.

Aged for 20 years at the Karuizawa Distillery, these casks were transferred to Chichibu Distillery, in the Saitama Prefecture, where their custodian was Ichibori-san, former distiller at Karuizawa.

The Legend of Asama

Karuizawa The Legend of Asama (image via Glencairn Crystal)

In recent years, Karuizawa whisky has become highly sought-after by whisky collectors. The Karuizawa Distillery was based at the foot of Mount Asama, one of Japan’s most active volcanoes, in Central Honshu. The site was ripe for whisky making, as there was no shortage of snow melt from Mount Asama and it was volcanic-rock-filtered and mineral rich.

This aided fermentation and contributed to what’s described as the clean, crisp flavor of the whisky. Temperate summer temperatures and cool winters were ideal for maturing the spirit.

Only a small quantity of Karuizawa was released as a single malt during the distillery’s lifetime and almost all of that was released exclusively in Japan. When the Japanese economy collapsed during the 1990s, Japanese whisky distilleries began to close, Karuizawa Distillery included, as it shuttered its doors in 2001. It was later demolished in 2016.

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After several years of negotiation, in 2011 the remaining stock of 364 casks were sold and since have gradually been bottled and sold – many achieving historic prices at auctions. And now, only two casks remain.

Whisky collector Mahesh Patel, founder of Universal Whisky Experience, chose casks 4059 and 6183 in 2011 and kept them at Chichibu Distillery to continue their maturation until 2017, when some of the whisky was bottled and sold in tiny batches. The last remaining bottles from each cask have been held back until now, for this exclusive ‘Legend of Asama’ release.

“I am extremely excited to finally be releasing this very special whisky to the world,” Patel said in a prepared statement. “I wanted to ensure that when these exceptional whiskies were released, they were presented in a beautiful way that could tell the story of their turbulent past and be celebrated by the person lucky enough to purchase them. This vision, along with Glencairn Crystal’s creativity and innovation has brought a part of this spectacular distillery back to life.”

The bottles in which the Karuizawa malt is presented are decorated with Noh masks … Noh is Sino Japanese for skill, craft or talent. The Noh theatre is a unique form of dance-drama performed in Japan since the 14th century integrating masks, elaborate costumes, props and music with chanted drama and dance based on old traditional tales.

The packaging and presentation of the sets is made up of five tubes – two containing the precious Noh bottles, two holding empty handmade crystal decanters with gold caps uniquely decorated with detailed engravings of the original labels, and the last holding two specially created Glencairn cut crystal glasses and a Glencairn water-jug.

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The tubes are hand crafted from lunawood in two sections which fasten together with a screw-thread hand cut into the wood. The design pays tribute to Mount Asama.

Scott Davidson, with Glencairn Crystal, said the inspiration for the packaging can be summed up as “Japanese simplicity,” understated, clean, and made only from natural materials.

“The whole display stands on an elevated plinth, arranged in a manner which reflects the noble elevations of Mount Asama,” he said.

Each set is also accompanied by a signed and numbered hardback book written by whisky writer Charles MacLean featuring the story behind ‘The Legend of Asama’ collection and tasting notes.