Interview with Firat Durmaz who owns the largest Karuizawa collection in the world
Firat Durmaz owns the largest Karuizawa collection in the world
What I love most in whisky blogging and leading whisky groups in social media, is the chance to meet whisky enthusiasts both in Turkey and around the world. Our Facebook forum, Viski Tutkunlari, is one of the largest whisky forums on Facebook with almost 8000 members and recently the photos of an incredible Japanese whisky collection appeared on our screens, creating great excitement. The owner of the collection Firat Durmaz kindly accepted my request to conduct an interview and gave great insights on whisky collecting and the magical world of Japanese whiskies, and of course the legendary Karuizawa. Here’s my interview with Firat Durmaz who owns the largest Karuizawa collection in the world . Karuizawa has a special place also in my heart since the highest grades I gave to a whisky belongs to 2 expressions of Karuizawa.
Hi Fırat, could you please introduce yourself?
After I graduated from Chemistry department at Bosphorous University in Istanbul, I moved to Zurich to continue with my education. I completed my phD at ETH Zurich in Materials Science department and started to work as a scientist in a company. After working two years in a chemistry laboratory I figured out that I don`t want to spend the rest of my life in the laboratory. I joined an executive MBA program at ETH Zurich. During that that time I switched from drinking blend whiskies to single malt whiskies and searched what is special about single malt whisky.
When did your passion for whisky start?
I was drinking mostly available blended whiskies like Johnny Walker Black Label and Green Label. In 2008 I tried first time single malt whisky Macallan. I liked it and started to read about production of single malt whisky and what makes it special. At that time I also started to follow Malt Maniacs Awards (MMA). There were not a plenty of blogs available back then but from Serge Valentine`s Whiskyfun and Ruben`s Whiskynotes I gathered valuable information.
You have an amazing Karuizawa collection, how did this start? When did you decide collecting? And why mostly Karuizawa?
In MMA a Japanese whisky drew my attention. It was winning every year gold medals 2008, 2009 … So I started to buy this Japanese whisky Karuizawa. I liked it very much, the bottles had beautiful labels (NOHs) and they were very limited, some of them were only limited worldwide to 100 bottles. Then I observed how the prices soar every year. I remember the time when legendary 1967 Karuizawa (LMDW and TWE) sold for 220EUR. Now it costs 15.000EUR if you can find it. So I started to look at Karuizawa as an investment opportunity.
The story of Karuizawa distillery is interesting, it goes back to 1955. Besides it is a lost distillery, it was a overlooked spirit business from Kirin Beer Group. The production was shut down 2000. In 2011 the Number Drinks managed to purchase all remaining Karuizawa casks. Afterwards I think it was 2012, these casks were bought by The Whisky Exchange (TWE), La Maison du Whisky (LMDW) and a private person from Taiwan.
At that time Karuizawa was bottled by different liqueur stores in different countries. The stores bought a cask or two and bottled it only for their local market for example cask 869 and 8775 for a liqueur shop in California or in Norway, Sweden … The problem was these shops don’t ship whisky to other countries, in USA not even from California to other states. They have strict rules. So I started to travel, USA, France, Japan, Norway, Sweden and Taiwan. I was investing heavily in Karuizawa bottles.
2014-2015 China woke up and discover the love to Japanese whiskies. Prices jumped ten times the original price. Everybody was looking for Karuizawa bottles, I think 2014 it was the most wanted whisky brand according to Google. From one side it was good to own large numbers of Karuizawa bottles at the other side it was getting more difficult and really expensive to collect further. I paid 52.000EUR for my last LMDW Karuizawa bottles (1965 Bourbon, 1965 Sherry and 1965 Japonism)
Are you in touch with other Karuizawa collectors, would you consider yours as the largest, or one of the largest?
Collecting Karuizawa became a passion and I decided to create the largest Karuizawa Collection. 2012 I started to go to whisky exhibitions; the biggest whisky exhibition in Limburg Whisky Fair (I definitely recommend this one), The Whisky Show London, Cinderella Whisky Fair Cruise (Viking Line), Whisky Live Paris and Taiwan. Of course I was attending in master classes and meeting the other Karuizawa enthusiasts. My highlight was 2015 Fukuoka Bring Your Own Karuizawa (BYOK) Event and Ichiro`s Malt Hanyu Playing Card Series (54 bottles) Tasting. We spent two days 8 sessions tasting complete set of Playing Cards, it was a unique experience for me
Now I have a good Karuizawa network. According to Whiskybase, Facebook and known collections it is the largest Karuizawa collection, around 400 different bottles.
Where do you find the bottles, which auction houses do you prefer?
During the last seven years I followed all major auction houses. It was also interesting to observe how auction houses popped up last 3-4 years due to high demand in whisky, I think people also discovered the opportunity investing in whisky as an alternative investment. Also low interest rate environment urge people to look for more profitable investment areas. Now there are hedge funds in Hong Kong and Singapore, which invest in whisky professionally. Beginning of this year I founded my company “Japanese Liquid Gold”, I advice people how to invest in whisky and I also offer them different Scotch and Japanese Whiskys from my Inventory. Most of my clients are from Asia. I generally buy Karuizawas in my collection from a German auction house Krüger and from British auction houses like Scotch Whisky Auction, Just Whisky Auction, www.whisky.auction, whiskyauctioneer.
Your passion for Japanese whisky led to this collection, are there any other brands/regions that you’re particularly interested with?
At the beginning around 2009 I was also buying from different distilleries like Ardbeg, Bowmore, Brora, Lagavulin, Macallan etc. But I figured out if you are a collector you need to concentrate on two three brands and stick to the plan because in recent years collecting rare and old whiskies became a tough job with the increasing demand in whisky. Besides Karuizawa I collect Ardbeg, Brora, Glendronach, Lagavulin, Laphroaig. Every distillery has a dream year where the best malt whiskies were produced and for Glendronach it is 1972 I have collected fifteen of them still the last one is missing. I quit collecting Port Ellens after I learned there are more than seven hundred different bottlings.
Do you have other collections? (other than whisky)
Oh no, collecting whisky is already a huge challenge, time- and moneywise.
The law against online sales and the availability of a few expressions make it very difficult to be a whisky collector in Turkey, however what would you recommend to a whisky enthusiast who wants to start a collection?
It is been a long time since I left Turkey so I am not familiar with whisky availability in Turkey. What I can recommend to whisky collector is to choose 3-4 distilleries and collect bottles from these distilleries.
- Buy rare and limited bottles from original bottlings (OB), independent bottlings are more complex and tricky to deal with them. Of course if you can find buy bottles from lost distilleries like Brora, Port Ellen, Rosebank etc. go for them because they won`t be produced anymore.
- Know your whisky, there are counterfeit products out there.
- Storage is also an important factor, do not store like wine. Bottles should be kept upright. Find a dark and cool place.
- If it is possible try the whisky before you buy it. Love whisky, if something goes wrong you can still open it and enjoy with your friends.
You have this amazing colection but most probably you don’t drink Karuizawa everyday:) what is Fırat’s daily dram?
Drinking whisky is for me seasonal, I prefer fruity light whiskies at a warm summer day and I enjoy heavy peated whiskies in winter. My favorites are Ardbeg ANB 2006-2008, Uigedail 2003 & 2004, Highland Park 18 & 21yo, Lagavulin Feis Ila bottlings, Lagavulin 16yo, Glendronach single casks 1990-1993, Old Pulteney 17 & 21yo, Port Ellen Elements of Islay Pe1-5, original and independent Port Ellens as a scotch single malt whisky. Among Japanese whiskies I like heavily sherrried single cask Nikka miyagikyo and yoichi (15-20yo), Chichibu, Hanyu and of course Karuizawas from time to time. I have still plenty of opened bottles:)
We recently opened a Japanese Restaurant-Bar “Yume Ramen” in Zurich where we offer more than 70 different Japanese Whiskies. Occasionally we also organize Japanese whisky master classes. I also go to Japan 3-4 times a year to visit distilleries (Chichibu, Hakushu, Miyagikyo, Yamazaki and Yoichi) and Whisky Bars where I can deepen my knowledge about Japanese Whiskies.