Karuizawa Acclaim Collection

Online retailer dekanta held an event in Tokyo to introduce the Karuizawa “Acclaim Collection” to Japan-based whisky-related media. The company has teamed up with Karuizawa-based artist David Stanley Hewitt to present the whisky.

Karuizawa’s story is well-known. Before opening Karuizawa, Daikoku Winery’s Shiojiri Distillery essentially failed due to a host of problems: the on-site well dried up just two months after production started, the new water source had too much iron content, fermentation produced a weird funk the next year, then both the water quality and volume rapidly subsequently declined.

Desperate for a new site, the company went with Karuizawa, the location of one of their wineries. Construction began in 1955 and production officially started mid-February 1956. The intervening years would see competition heat up and Sanraku Ocean–the company’s new name post-merger with Sanraku–respond with improvements to the distillery. In 1976, they released Japan’s first single malt whisky, Karuizawa Single Malt Whisky.

Like many whisky distilleries of the day, the late 80s didn’t treat Karuizawa well. Production slowed, then stopped entirely at the end of 2000.

In a bizarre twist of fate, the whisky world latched on to the rarity of Karuizawa’s whisky after it closed in 2011. It became the stuff of legend, so cue the onslaught of bottles being passed from one collector to another. A bottle of Karuizawa 1960 sold for around $435K USD in March 2020, and it held the record for the most expensive bottle of Japanese whisky until Yamazaki 55 came along. My take: the mystique offered in stories like that of Karuizawa has significantly contributed to the explosive success of Japanese whisky. Having run this website since 2016 though, I can say the “last” Karuizawa releases somehow keep coming year after year.

Getting to the Acclaim Collection. Each collection features three bottles at 700ml and 61% abv apiece. Probably 98% of the intro page is about the background and artistry of the presentation rather than the liquid itself. But we know it was distilled in 1999 or 2000, making this juice some of the last to come off the stills at Karuizawa (at least until those stills were purchased and moved). There are no tasting notes available. That said, dekanta confirmed it is indeed three different whiskies. The list price is USD $50K.

Let’s be frank here. I’m sure the liquid inside tastes just fine, or even mind-bogglingly wonderful. But this is priced to be an investment for people who have run out of things to invest in. This is whisky art, not just whisky. It begs to be placed in a conspicuous place in your entertainment space, and your guests will audibly gasp when the cabinet is opened. Do you even need to open the bottles?

For all my snark, a ton of work went into creating this set long after Karuizawa did their part. David Hewitt is based in Karuizawa and is known primarily for his work with gold leaf, working for example with the US Embassy in Tokyo, the Ritz, and Okura. He’s also worked with Riedel to create glassware inspired by his Bushido Series of paintings.

The David Hewitt-designed cabinet to house the Acclaim Collection is lacquerware (a “japan”), but not just any lacquerware: it’s specifically from Ishikawa prefecture’s Wajima, where the up to 124-step process is designated an Important Intangible Cultural Property per the Japanese government. Wajima lacquerware is renowned specifically for its durability and beauty. To put that in financial terms, a rent-to-own a miso soup bowl for example costs 18,126 yen. The bottles in the Acclaim Collection are designed to look like kimono, and handpainted by Mr. Hewitt.

The cabinet also features 24-karat gold leafing and LED lighting to illuminate the Collection when it’s opened. Altogether, it took Mr. Hewitt and his partner craftspeople 18 months to put everything together.

And guess what? It’s sold out! Sets like this are bound to pop up on secondary (and remain as a set), though, so if you have deep pockets and are interested, keep an eye out. Alternatively, contact dekanta, as they would be glad to help.

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