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Spotlights and Deep-Dives

The Unsung Hero Of Japanese Whisky: Mars Whisky (Hombo Shuzo)

Distillery Spotlight: Mars (Hombo Shuzo)

Regions: Nagano, Kagoshima & Yakushima, Japan

It felt like a terrible waste that the Taketsuru whisky study commissioned by Settsu Shuzo was not actualised by the commissioner, only to have Suntory reap the rewards of Masan’s learnings. This haunted Kiichiro Iwai for decades, and he returned to the whisky business in his seventies.

 

 

The year was 1920.

The president’s office of Settsu Shuzo, a prominent Osaka sake brewer, was quiet except for the soft tick-tock of the wall clock. Mr Kihei Abe leaned back in his chair, glancing at the framed photo of his lovely daughter, Maki, on his desk. He remembered fondly the day they'd arranged her marriage to Masataka Taketsuru, a bright young employee chosen to travel to Scotland and bring the art of whisky-making to Japan. Mr Abe had invested heavily in the promising Masataka-san (or ‘Masan’). Masan represented the future of Abe’s legacy in more ways than one. This young man was not only the key to Settsu Shuzo becoming the first genuine whisky-maker in Japan, he also promised to take Abe’s favourite daughter as wife and give her the comfortable life that she ought to have.

Meanwhile, a passenger liner docked on Japanese shores after a long voyage from Scotland. Masan stepped off the ship after being two years away from home. The air became thick with murmurs and curious glances amongst the awaiting crowd. Who was this foreign lady with Masan? Wasn’t he engaged to the daughter of the CEO – the benefactor who financially backed his trip to Scotland in the first place? And are European women all so tall?

It seemed that in the misty Highlands, Masan discovered another spirit – a kindred spirit in the form of a Scottish lady named Rita.

Japanese whisky fans by now, would have heard of the story of how Masataka Taketsuru ventured to Scotland to learn the art of whiskymaking, and after having spent time at the University of Glasgow and three Scotch distilleries, came back to Japan before working with Shinjiro Toii to establish the Yamazaki Distillery. He would later independently start his own distillery in Hokkaido and found Nikka Whisky. What is often left out is how the young Masan had even gotten his start in the whiskymaking business – that’s where Settsu Shuzo and Mr Kiichiro Iwai come into the picture.

 

Masataka Taketsuru got his big break in whisky distilling thanks to his college senior, Kiichiro Iwai, who helped get him a job at a major Japanese liquor company, Settsu Shuzo. 

 

Iwai was a senior to Masan, having graduated from the Osaka Technical College sake brewing program 14 years prior. It was Iwai who took Taketsuru into what was one of the largest companies attempting to make local whisky at the time, Settsu Shuzo, where Iwai was a trusted advisor to the management. During the early 1900s, Japanese distillers could only make imitation whisky – what was called ‘imotori spirit’ made from sweet potato, and was in truth closer to Japanese shochu. However, a new free trade agreement with the UK meant that the country had begun importing genuine Scotch like Johnnie Walker, giving the Japanese consumer a taste of the real thing.

 

One of the largest liquor distilling operations in Japan during the 1900s was at Settsu Shuzo (Source: Japan Whisky Research Centre)

 

Explaining the situation to the top brasses of Settsu Shuzo, Iwai convinced the president Mr Abe that they urgently need the capability to make genuine whisky, the kind made by the Scots. And rather than trying to reverse-engineer whisky, why not go straight to the source and learn from the Scots? Iwai introduced Masan to Mr Abe: here was a young man incredibly passionate about whisky-making. Masan could even speak English was well-bred, coming from a long line of sake brewers himself.

 

The fresh-faced Masan in his twenties (Source: Nikka)

 

The president eventually took a liking to Masan, regularly inviting him over to the Abe residence. Here, Masan became acquainted with Abe’s eldest daughter of about the same age. According to one account (from a Japanese book which chronicled Nikka Whisky’s rise, The Birth of the Bearded Whiskey), whenever the handsome Masan glanced at Maki, she would blush and quickly look to her feet.

Settsu Shuzo (which sponsored Masan's trip to Scotland) refused to move into making whisky, despite the fact that Masan had returned with meticulous, detailed notes filled with valuable whiskymaking know-how.

All Hopes Dashed For Settsu Shuzo

Masan's adventures and romance with Rita were portrayed in a popular NHK television series, Masan.

 

Alas, Mr Abe’s hope of marrying off his daughter was painfully dashed. It seemed that in the misty Highlands, Masan discovered another spirit – a kindred spirit in the form of a Scottish lady named Rita. The pair fell in love and tied the knot in Glasgow, against their families’ wishes.

 

(Source: Nikka)

 

Settsu Shuzo also refused to move into making whisky, despite the fact that Masan had returned to Japan with meticulous, detailed notes filled with valuable whiskymaking know-how from Longmorn Distillery and Hazelburn Distillery (known as the ‘Taketsuru Notebooks’). Its reasons were undisclosed. A widely-accepted explanation was that the company abandoned the project due to financial difficulties caused by the poor economic situation post-World War I. But another account (explored by the NHK television series, Masan) suggests that Mr Abe was simply too hurt by Masan’s decision to break off the engagement to his daughter.

 

In the popular Japanese television series, Masan, Mr Abe's daughter was portrayed as a spiteful lady who had assumed she would marry Massan due to the arrangements made by her father.  

 

Masan resigned in 1922 when he realised that his dream of making whisky at Settsu Shuzo would never see the light of day. But let’s not forget that during this time, he was still the only Japanese person who knew how to produce Scotch-style whisky. Almost immediately, Kotobukiya Limited (the precursor to Suntory) recruited him to lead the building of the Yamazaki Distillery in the outskirts of Osaka.

The Birth of Mars

It certainly felt like a terrible waste that the Taketsuru whisky study commissioned by Settsu Shuzo was not actualised by the commissioner, only to have Suntory reap the rewards of Masan’s learnings. This haunted Iwai for decades, even as he had moved on to join another Japanese shochu company called Hombo Shuzo. Hombo Shuzo entered the whisky business in 1949, and built its first whisky plant in 1960. The building of Hombo Shuzo’s first whisky distillery in Yamanashi city was entrusted to Iwai, who was by now 77-year-old. To design the distillery and its equipment, Iwai referred to the only documents he could count on – the Taketsuru Notebooks written decades years ago. 

 

What was once the Mars Whisky plant in Yamanashi has been converted into a winery by the company.

 

The elderly Iwai then passed away in 1966, and the Yamanashi distillery was closed shortly after in 1969. For the next decade or so, Hombo Shuzo merely dabbled in whisky, opening then closing another distillery in Kagoshima. Unfortunately, following Masan’s notes to make whisky led to a very Scotch-style single malt that was too powerful and peaty for the Japanese palate.

Finally in 1985, the iconic Mars Shinshu Distillery was opened in the chilly Nagano region, near the Japanese Alps. Unlike the previous Mars distilleries, this distillery is to make a lighter, more refined single malt that is better suited to the Japanese palate.

 

 

Shinshu is set in a mountainous environment and at an altitude of 798 meters above sea level, making it the highest distillery in Japan. The distillery is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, including the Mount Komagatake where the snowmelt provides a source of water for the distillery. Although old man Iwai had passed away decades ago, his spirit lives on in Shinshu’s equipment, which includes Iwai’s old pot stills originally used in the closed Yamanashi distillery. Today, these aging stills have been replaced with exact replicas.

All the single malts from Mars Shinshu are bottled under the Mars Komagatake brand. As mentioned, this is a lighter, more refined single malt. To create a fruiter and more estery profile, the distillery also uses a fairly long fermentation time of 4 days.

In 2016, the company opened its second most iconic distillery, the Mars Tsunuki Distillery to create a heavier and more robust spirit. The first obvious difference here is climate. The distillery is built in Minami-Satsuma city where the temperatures are much higher than at Shinshu’s mountainous region, resulting in twice as much angel’s share and a much more active wood maturation as compared to whisky maturing at Shinshu.

 

 

The distillery also uses pot stills that are fitted with worm tub condensers, a rare modification that reduces the contact between copper and spirit, resulting in a heavier style of spirit. Stefan Van Eycken, an expert on Japanese whisky further pointed out that distillery workers rarely clean the insides of the spirit stills (for secondary or tertiary distillation). The accumulated residue and oils add to the robustness and aromas of the spirit. Van Eycken describes the aroma: “think vegemite plus clay.”

There are two main single malt bottlings from Mars Tsunuki – there is the basic Tsunuki Single Malt, and a smokier expression simply called the Tsunuki Peated Single Malt.

Around the same time, the company embarked on the “Yakushima Aging” project (or Y.A. Project). Yakushima Island is a subtropical and heavily forested island off the southern coast of the Japanese mainland. The climate here is even more intense than at Shinshu and Tsunuki, with temperatures going as high as 38°C in the summer.  

 

Yakushima is a world heritage site near Kagoshima with a humid subtropical climate. (Image Source: New York Times)

 

Since the company was also already producing shochu at the Yakushima Denshougura Distillery, in the early years of the Y.A. Project, they simply sent several newly filled casks from Shinshu Distillery to the island and stored them in the warehouse of the shochu distillery. This was how the company produced the Mars Komagatake 2014 Single Malt - Yakushima Aging expression (read our contributor’s review of this whisky here). The aging in Yakushima’s climate adds slightly heavier dimensions of oakiness, making the whisky feel a little more mature. Not long after the whisky maturing at Tsunuki was old enough, the company released a blended malt Japanese whisky called Mars The Y.A. #01 to great fanfare – the blended malt was made with a combination of Shinshu and Tsunuki distillates that were transported to Yakushuma for maturation.  

As the Y.A. Project showed promise, Hombo Shuzo expanded the whisky aging facilities in Yakushima over the years. The company now has two “aging cellars” on the island which can hold over 1,600 casks together.

Other Mars Whisky Expressions to Know About

Despite the quality of the offerings, one challenge with getting into Mars Whisky is plethora of product lines that can confuse those who are new to Japanese whisky – especially when it comes to Mars’ blended whisky lines. So let’s clear things up a little.

The most affordable whisky expression from the brand is without a doubt the Mars Iwai. This is an entry level-priced blended whisky made at Shinshu Distillery, using a mashbill of 75% corn and 25% malted barley. While most Japanese whiskies take after Scotch tradition, this expression is said to be inspired by American bourbon. While not intended to be very complex, there are some richer notes of caramel and charred oak.

The Mars Iwai is not to be confused with the Mars Iwai Tradition, which is a step-up as a slightly more premium blend. Its recipe flips the Iwai mashbill to 75% malted barley and 25% corn in order to get a flavour profile that comes closer to contemporary Japanese whisky.

The name of both whiskies pay homage to Mr Kiichiro Iwai, who as we've already covered, is Mars’ pioneer in whiskymaking.

Another common product line is the Mars Maltage “Cosmo”, which blends whisky from Shinshu Distillery and imported whisky from Scotland. This was apparently a big hit when first released in 2015, and thus became a core range product. It’s worth mentioning that drinkers familiar with the JSLMA bottle-labelling regulations would understand these expressions as a “world blend” of some sort. Newer bottles from this range also no longer claim to be “Japanese Whisky”.

On the extreme end of the spectrum, one of the most sought-after bottles of Mars is the awkwardly named Mars Maltage ‘3 plus 25’ 28 Years Pure Malt Whisky. This whisky is a blend of 3-year-old malt whiskies made in two of Mars’ closed distilleries: the original Yamanashi distillery (closed in 1969) and Kagoshima distillery (closed in 1984). The different whisky components were kept in neutral vessels (which do not age the whisky) for a period of time before being aged for a further 25 years at Mars Shinshu Distillery. This whisky won the award of “World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky” at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards and has the high praise of many whisky experts. Unfortunately, the serendipitous origin of this whisky also means that Mars is unable to reproduce it.

 

 

The future of Mars

There’s been an upswing in Mars’ popularity in recent years, in large part due to limited edition bottlings that showcase the effects of Japan’s varied climates on whisky maturation. The company constantly leverages its access to 3 very different climates across Japan, conducting maturation experiments at Tsunuki Distillery (warm, humid and windy Kyushu), Shinshu Distillery (cold and snowy Nagano) and its Yakushima Aging Cellar (tropical and humid Yakushima island).

Take for instance the limited edition Mars x LMDW Single Cask Komagatake set that was released late last year. Expressions like these have ignited a lot of interest in fans to taste the differences between expressions matured in various facilities.

 

 

Here’s our review of the set.

Mars Komagatake 5YO 2016, Tsunuki Aging – Review

First Fill Bourbon Barrel, 61% ABV

  

 

The Tsunuki-aged Komagatake was distilled in Shinshu Distillery with malt peated to 20 ppm, kept in first fill bourbon barrels and bottled at 61% ABV. 

Colour: Copper-gold

Nose: Aromatic and herbaceous. Opens with very delicate Oolong tea notes wrapped up with fresh sliced banana and mild notes of cream (reminding me of a banana split and vanilla). A bit more airing tips the banana notes into just a slightly more solventy direction, before light floral notes of chamomile honey tea begin to show up.

Very fragrant and structured, fresh florals and gentle peat notes that I almost couldn’t detect.

 

 

Palate: Surprisingly lively, flavourful and multidimensional.

Opens with a rich maltiness; a scattering of granola in oat milk, buoyed by sweetness reminiscent of fresh bananas, vanilla and cinnamon. Banana bread! There’s quite a bit of earthiness- we’re getting mushrooms, gentle liquorice and thick Oolong tea, and a passing sensation of smokiness that I might have imagined? But no, this is in fact peated to 20ppm. Also getting some spiciness of ginger and light notes of toasted white sesame.

 

 

Finish: A fairly long walk in a herb garden. A fresh breath of basil and a pleasing note of perilla leaf (the kind you wrap meat with at Korean barbecue), and a fading note of cinnamon and liquorice. 

 

 

My thoughts

🌬

A gentle breeze of fragrant incense, and nicely elemental, with prominent earthy notes and finish that takes us straight to the herb garden, with committed flavours that allude to the warmer, subtropical climate of Kyushu. A flavourful, interesting and pleasant overall dram with a very soft alcoholic bite. That said, I personally preferred a little bit more commitment to smoke and peatiness. Let’s see about the rest.

  

Mars Komagatake 4YO 2017, Shinshu Aging – Review

First Fill Bourbon Barrel, 61% ABV

 

 

The Shinshu-aged Komagatake was distilled in Shinshu Distillery (i.e. Nagano province) with unpeated malt, kept in first fill bourbon barrels and bottled at 61% ABV.

Colour: Deep gold.

Nose: Complex and elegantly revealed, with a nice oily texture.

Open like a buttery French pastry tart: lots of biscuity maltiness, vanilla creaminess with bright, sweet tropical fruits – the likes of mango and passionfruit. Really appetising. Aromas slowly unwound to a very mild peachiness (tinned peaches), toasted coconut flakes, before revealing a distinct woody-prickliness of rosemary, menthol and eucalyptus.

 

 

Palate: Rich, layered, honeyed and very aromatic. 

On the first sip, lots of sweet tart-like note just as found on the nose. Rich vanilla, cream and sweet-and-sour mangoes, passionfruit and a squeeze of citrusy lemon. Vanilla oakiness continues to be present as it unfolds into more toasted coconut and a complex depth of vanilla, honey and a grassy, vegetal bitterness that comes from rocket salad, cooked Belgian endives and stir-fried Chinese cabbage.

 

 

Finish: Long, candied and elegantly medicinal. Light caramel notes of honey, caramel, Werter’s Original candy, menthol shaving cream and then a light layer of grassiness that comes from a very hoppy lager beer.

 

 

My thoughts

🕺🏻

Really appetising, bright and fresh with a lot of dance moves! So much is going on here and yet the notes neatly unfold one after another in a considered and elegant way. Does this “elegance” speak to the temperate climate of Nagano? Perhaps.

  

Mars Komagatake 5YO 2016, Yakushima Aging – Review

First Fill Bourbon Barrel, 61% ABV

 

 

The Yakushima-aged Komagatake was distilled in Shinshu Distillery with 50ppm peated malt, kept in first fill bourbon barrels and bottled at 61% ABV.

Colour: Amber gold.

Nose: Very sweet, elegant and aromatic. This takes a while to open up to the nose, beginning with a distinct but friendly creamy and clove-like aroma of fresh lilies, with a just-as-present depth of sweet, floral Junmai Daiginjo saké aromas, tangerines, before eventually revealing a lot of fragrant incense smoke and eucalyptus candy.

 

 

Palate: Densely packed and forthcoming. 

Immediate notes of fragrant ashiness coupled with a tangy, zesty, lemony note that reminds me of some old style Laphroaigs. There’s an almost-coastal brininess with notes of honey lemon, lemon grass and a sweet mentholic note found in mint-and-chocolate-chip gelato. Develops into a somewhat farmy dry hay note, more grassiness, smoke and mineral notes that remind me of smoky artisanal mezcal.

 

 

Finish: Very long, with enduring sweet smokiness, complimented with a puff of mint vape (Don’t vape, kids! Just think of a mint Tic Tac instead), hot English mustard and fading honey lemon sweetness.

 

 

My thoughts

🎯

My god this is some unusual stuff – it’s like an "Islay"-style Komagatake with this level of coastal brininess coupled with a lot of aromatic smoke, citrus, grassiness and yet wrapped in a beautiful kimono of florals and Japanese rice saké. As a lover of peated Islay Scotches, this expression really takes the cake for me.

The warmer Yakushima climate might have slightly enhanced and emboldened the flavours, but with the level of refinement and elegance we see here, I honestly think Mars might have gotten lucky with a very good cask of Komagatake.

 

Conclusions

If the objective here really is to compare the effects of maturation in different regional climate, then one thing that continues to puzzle me is the fact that the 3 releases are of different peating levels – the Shinshu at zero, the Tsunuki at 20ppm and the Yakushima at 50ppm. Surely this would throw us off a little bit. 

A casual comparison of the character of these releases does seem to tell us a bit about the effects of varied climate. The temperate climate Shinshu-aged Komagatake appears to have more refinement than the other two releases, with rather more subtle notes that gradually unfold. The Yakushima-aged Komagatake was apparently exposed to much more temperature fluctuations due to the climate of Yakushima, which might have contributed to more powerful notes that remind us of some old style Islay Scotches.

It's a pity there doesn't seem to be a Mars masterclass available for this series of expressions aged in different climate, leaving us whisky geeks to make our own guesstimates in the dark about the potential differences. But until then, this LMDW Single Cask series does a great job of showing us the fantastic potential of Mars's whisky stock. 

 

@CharsiuCharlie