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Totsuka on the revival of Karuizawa whisky

The founder of Karuizawa Whisky Company discusses his plans to recreate the revered Japanese brand, and its 10-year partnership with online retailer Dekantā.

Karuizawa Whisky Co owner Shigeru Totsuka with Dekantā founder Makiyo Masa
L-r: Shigeru Totsuka with Dekantā founder Makiyo Masa

In December 2022, Japanese spirits retailer Dekantā revealed its partnership with Karuizawa Whisky Company, which recently opened its new whisky distillery in the heart of its namesake town.

Karuizawa Whisky Co is aiming to recreate the original Karuizawa liquid at its new distillery.

Closed in 2000, the original Karuizawa site has achieved a cult-like status for its Sherried single malt whisky, with very little liquid available on the market. Bottles of the last remaining liquid are often sold at auction, fetching sky-high prices.

The new distillery is helmed by Shigeru Totsuka, the 16th-generation owner of saké producer Totsuka distillery and brewery in Saku, Nagano, located 20 minutes west of Karuizawa. The business has been running for more than 400 years.

Unlike Karuizawa Distillers (KDI), which is building a whisky site in nearby Komoro, Totsuka’s new Karuizawa distillery has the rights to use the Karuizawa brand name.

In 2012, when the original Karuizawa Whisky company went out of business, Totsuka decided he wanted to bring the brand back to life. He started looking for land to build the new distillery five years ago.

The “most important puzzle piece” was hiring Karuizawa’s former master distillers, Osami Uchibori and Yoshiyuki Nakazato. The new distillery currently has six full-time employees.

The process of building the distillery began two years ago in Karuizawa, which is the only distillery in the town, Totsuka said.

“It’s really important because there have been whisky companies from all over the world asking for permission to build a distillery in Karuizawa, and they’ve all been denied,” he explained.

Totsuka and his family have been doing business in the town for 400 years, which helped him gain permission to build the new site.

The distillery officially opened in December 2022 with an opening ceremony, and whisky distilling began the same month.

The site uses two pot stills made by Forsyths in Scotland that are the same as the original stills, but slightly larger.

To replicate the Karuizawa liquid, the distillery has the same distillers, recipe and equipment, however the hops are different.

The distillery made a very small amount of barrels at the end of 2022. Japanese whisky bearing the Karuizawa name from the new site will go on sale in 10 year’s time, from 2033.

Totsuka was able to source many high-quality old Sherry casks that will be used for the new liquid.

Totsuka is also playing around with the idea of buying in whisky from other Japanese makers and creating a blended whisky that can be sold as he waits for the liquid to be ready for bottling. However, it will be sold under a different name.

The new facility is located about a 15-minute drive from the original Karuizawa distillery. Half of the land where the original site was located was turned into a town hall and rest is used for a museum.

Totsuka is looking to buy land next door to where the old distillery was located to use as a storage facility, which would have the capacity to hold approximately 2,000 barrels.

Currently, the new distillery can hold around 100 barrels, and Totsuka is also planning to build an additional storage facility in Karuizawa that can hold approximately three times that amount.

The new Karuizawa whisky distillery
The new Karuizawa whisky site is the only distillery in its namesake town

‘Global reach’

Karuizawa Whisky Company and independent bottler Dekantā will work together for 10 years to create official distillery bottlings and independent releases, alongside Japanese whisky events and experiences.

“We realised that this is a company that’s going to be able to market the whisky in a way that will be in line with how we want to be perceived. And they have global reach,” Totsuka explained.

“We can take care of Japan and Asia pretty well, but we didn’t have connections in the US or Europe, or a customer base or anything like that. And we’re not making a tonne of whisky. So we just wanted to have one high-quality, responsible partner to work with.”

Dekantā is the only company that Karuizawa Whisky Company has chosen to work with overseas.

The distillery is hoping to make several hundred barrels annually after going into full production this year.

“We already gave commitments for the first two years for all the barrels we can make,” Totsuka said.

Private individuals will also have the chance to own a barrel of the whisky further down the line.

“That’s an opportunity that hasn’t presented itself in the Japanese whisky industry for a long time,” said Liam Hiller, Dekantā’s head of content.

“Japanese whisky as a category is still relatively young, compared to other spirits industries in the world. It’s been quite local, and difficult to get Japanese whiskies outside of Japan, they’re all very limited.”

He noted that the partnership will help the category “grow into that international stage” after being unable to meet demand for years due to a shortage of liquid.

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