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Andrew Abrahamson was lucky. Visiting Tokyo in 2013, the current director of operations for single-spirit bars and strategic partnerships for 213 Hospitality sampled several scarce Japanese whiskies from Hanyu Ichiro’s Card series. He purchased two other rare Japanese whiskies, a 31-year-old and a 33-year-old Karuizawa, before heading home to Los Angeles. Abrahamson paid about US$1,000 (RM3,900) for the pair – a relative bargain, considering how well rare Japanese whiskies have performed at auction. The most sought-after come from the stock of Japanese distilleries that closed in the first decade of this century, ensuring their scarcity. “What’s out there is out there, and once it’s gone, it’s gone," Abrahamson says. “It creates a hysteria."
1. Hanyu Ichiro Cards series
The Hanyu distillery stopped distilling in 2000 and officially closed in 2004, but it was revived eight years later under a different name by Ichiro Akuto, grandson of its original owner. Between 2005 and 2014, he released a set of 54 bottlings – 52 “cards" and two “jokers," known as the Hanyu Ichiro Cards series. Bonhams Hong Kong set a record for a Japanese whisky series at auction when it offered a complete set of Hanyu Ichiro Cards. Two other full decks of Cards are believed to exist.
2. Karuizawa Geisha series
Bonhams Hong Kong (August 2016, US$142,200/RM553,750)
Bonhams Hong Kong was the first auctioneer to offer a complete 27-bottle set of Karuizawa’s Geisha series, which was released by distributors in Europe and Asia between 2012 and 2016. The spirits covered a range of ages, with the eldest dating to 1970 and the youngest to 2000. The consignor assembled the collection bottle by bottle.
3. Karuizawa 1960 52-year-old “The Cockerel”
Bonhams Hong Kong (August 2015, US$118,400/RM461,100)
The bottle is named for the small Japanese carving, called a netsuke, that comes with it. Karuizawa closed in 2001, and this bottling, one of only 41 produced, represents the oldest whisky from its stills. The Cockerel appeared in the same auction as the Hanyu Ichiro Cards series and set an auction record for a single bottle of Japanese whisky. Both lots went to the same Southeast Asian bidder.
4. Karuizawa 1960 52-year-old “The Dragon”
Zachys Wine Auctions, Hong Kong (May 2016, US$110,600/RM430,700)
A sibling to the Cockerel that sold at Bonhams Hong Kong last year, the Dragon went to a US bidder. “While maybe a year ago buyers were gobbling up common bottlings at huge prices," says Zachys’s Charles Antin, “recently there’s been a trend toward connoisseurship and savviness. People want the truly rare dram."
5. Karuizawa 30-year-old, set of 10
Bonhams Hong Kong (November 2015, US$78,900/RM307,300)
While not as difficult to assemble as the 54 bottles in the Hanyu Ichiro Cards series, this group of 10 Karuizawa 30-year-olds was not exactly easy to acquire, as the bottlings were released at different times. Only a few hundred of each were produced.
6. Karuizawa 1960 33-year-old
Bonhams Hong Kong (August 2015, US$50,500/RM196,700)
Rarity and beauty combined to drive the price of this Japanese whisky well into the five-figure range last year. Only 100 were released – each in a teardrop-shaped, gold-flecked vessel.
7. Karuizawa 45 year old, set of two
Zachys Wine Auctions: Hong Kong (May 2015, US$30,032/RM116,960)
“It is unusual to see two bottles in the same lot. These were bottled approximately one year apart," says Jeff Zacharia, president of Zachys Wine Auctions. “This offers the opportunity to note similarities and differences."