‘A Side Hustle’: How Karuizawa Came To The World

Spirits entrepreneur Marcin Miller talks to Isabel Graham-Yooll about the thrill of launching new whiskies.

‘A Side Hustle’: How Karuizawa Came To The World

There are few people who have had such an impact on which whiskies we are able to choose to buy than Marcin Miller.

Marcin’s life in whisky began in 1997 in what he calls ‘ancient history’, when he became the editor and publisher of Whisky Magazine (before that he had been publisher of Wine Magazine and Wine & Spirit International). In 2004 he left the Whisky Magazine to start his own business, a drinks PR consultancy, where he specialised in marketing and reputation management for the drinks industry, that’s when he joined forces with business partner David Croll.

It’s the thing the pair did next that changed everything. At first the plan was just to import Japanese whisky ‘on a small scale in what the young people would now call a “side hustle”’. What they actually did next was buy the entire inventory from Karuizawa, a relatively unknown distillery in Japan which had been operating since 1956 but had been mothballed in 2000.

The first thing I wanted to know was how his involvement with Karuizawa, a perennial favourite at Whisky.Auction, had begun…

What did you see in Karuizawa that others didn’t see?

David Croll suggested the owners might be interested in exporting single cask whisky (on a relatively small scale). On a visit to the distillery in 2009, David Croll, Dave Broom and I were working through a tasting of 69 cask samples – all bar one of which were outstanding – when it became evident that there was no distilling going on. This led to a conversation and a lengthy negotiation regarding the purchase of all the remaining casks. Not a question of seeing what others didn’t see: more about hard work, luck, being in the right place at the right time and an appetite for risk…

Are you a risk taker?

I’m not risk averse but nor am I am reckless speculator.

We went on to work with Hanyu and later Chichibu. We exited the unregulated Japanese whisky business and built Japan’s first gin distillery to launch KI NO BI Kyoto Dry Gin in October 2016. I’m also involved in two other distilling projects [including Oslo Håndverksdestilleri in Norway and The Oxford Artisan Distillery in England].

How did you and David Croll meet?

When seeking a partner to create a Japanese language version of Whisky Magazine and to launch Whisky Live, I met David in Tokyo at the turn of the millennium. Together with his wife, Noriko, David and I have worked very closely for over 20 years. I referred to luck earlier: I am most fortunate to have talented partners of such long-standing in whom I have complete trust.

The Kyoto Distillery has generously donated a bottle of Karuizawa Five Decades for The Distillers’ Charity to support funds being raised by The Worshipful Company of Distillers for The Lord Mayor’s Appeal…

We like to share. Joking aside, it is a rare and prestigious bottling which we hope will raise a good price at auction to support a very worthy cause.

Karuizawa Five Decades was a small, experimental and celebratory vatting, originally for the Founders. Of the original 200 bottles, many will have already been opened and appreciated: plus it tastes great.

You were at the Whisky Magazine in ‘the good old days’. The magazine felt so felt important then…

I learnt a huge amount at Whisky Magazine and had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with the late Michael Jackson as well as racking up the airmiles with Dave Broom, my favourite travelling companion. It was an introduction to the wonderful world of whisky and the many talented and creative individuals therein. I still get a kick out of whisky: I was thrilled when The Oxford Artisan Distillery (of which I’m Vice Chairman) launched its inaugural Oxford Rye Whisky last week.

You have created, and marketed many of today’s most popular brands. What makes a whisky brand popular? Is it just quality?

There is no computer-generated algorithm. In my view, it is a confluence of contributory parts: delicious liquid, fantastic story and brilliant pack are all essential but there must be that indefinable extra. The “X factor”, if you will…

You do appear to have great foresight though. What do you think will be the most collectable whiskies in ten years?

You are too kind. I don’t have foresight: David and I reject many ideas and investment opportunities. We talk things through and, from our different perspectives, arrive at an instinctive consensus.

[Regarding collectable whiskies] buy for the long-term and invest in what you will enjoy drinking (in case it loses value): Karuizawa was an eye-opener for me in terms of what prolonged maturation can do; KI NO BI makes, for me, the best Martini in the world.

How surprised were you with the recent announcement from Japan that for years, so many whiskies branded as Japanese, in fact contain imported whiskies?

Not surprised at all: I was exhausted from holding my tongue when enthusiasts would venture their love of Japanese whisky with Nikka From The Barrel as the apogee. Maybe disappointed that it took so long for regulation to be considered, allowing the reputation of the category to be tarnished. Not sure how it will affect the legacy of Karuizawa and Ichiro Akuto [of Hanyu and Chihibu] has always been pretty transparent about blend constituents.

What other questions do you wish I’d asked you?

“Is it true you and Sukhinder went to the same prep school (albeit you left long before Mr Singh started)?”

Is it true you and Sukhinder went to the same prep school (albeit you left long before Mr Singh started)?

I’m glad you asked me that.