Showing posts with label Mars. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mars. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Mars launches 'The Revival 2011'

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Mars Shinshu (Hombo) has just launched their latest expression - the first one from the 'new regime'. Mars stopped distilling whisky in 1992. After a hiatus of almost two decades, they started again. The first spirit produced under the new regime - under master distiller Koki Takehira, that is - came off the stills in February 2011. It was kept in a stainless tank for a few months before being filled into wood - which is why the people at Mars had to wait until summer 2014 to be able to launch their first 3yo.

'The Revival 2011' is a vatting of lightly peated (8ppm) whisky exclusively matured in ex-bourbon casks, bottled at vatting strength (58%). There are 6,000 bottles, and - somewhat surprisingly, since it breaks with Mars' policy of sensible pricing - is priced at 10,000 yen a bottle. It remains to be seen whether whisky fans at home are willing to part with this kind of money for a 3yo whisky... The jury is still out on whether the quality of the whisky justifies the price tag.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mars 1988 Komagatake Single Cask #557

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
A few weeks ago, when we spoke to the guys from Mars distillery, they told us they were about to release a stunning 1988 single cask. We were sworn to secrecy at the time, but it has just hit the shelves so the secret is out. It is drawn from an American white oak cask (#557) that was filled way back in March 1988. Bottled at cask strength (58%abv), it yielded 347 bottles. This is one of the oldest Mars single casks and even though - in tune with developments on the whisky scene here and abroad - prices keep going up (this one retailing for around 20,000 yen), it is bound to sell out fast. We'll let you know what it is like, as soon as the liquid hits our palate.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Whisky Festival in Tokyo 2013

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
© Stefan Van Eycken
The annual ‘Whisky Festival in Tokyo’, organized by the Scotch Whisky Research Centre, has quickly become one of the highlights of the whisky year in Japan – second only in size to the Tokyo International Bar Show /Whisky Live, which takes place in the spring. This year there were noticeably more exhibitors than last year, but – and this may be a side-effect, or the law of diminishing returns asserting itself – it was also clear that there was less variety at each individual booth. To give you an idea of the complete lack of interest on the part of the big Japanese whisky distillers to showcase their range, this is what their selection was limited to:

Suntory: NAS Hakushu, NAS Yamazaki, Hibiki 12, Premium Kakubin
Nikka: NAS Taketsuru, Coffey Grain
Kirin: Fuji Sanroku 50° and 18yo

As you can imagine, bringing these sort of whiskies to an event that clearly targets well-seasoned whisky enthusiasts is a bit like bringing a poodle to a greyhound race. There’s nothing wrong with these whiskies but people have come to expect more from a high-profile event such as the Whisky Festival in Tokyo. What exactly the marketing people at these companies are thinking is anybody’s guess.
© Stefan Van Eycken
Fortunately, the good folk at Mars saved the day on the Japanese whisky front by bringing no less than three brand-new whiskies. Unsurprisingly, they were all outstanding. One of them was a wine-finished version of their 10yo single malt. The standard 10yo single malt was filled into Chateau Mars ex-red wine casks (Cabernet-Sauvignon) – at 40%! – and left to further mature for a year. The influence of the wine cask was stronger than with the Iwai Wine Finish (launched earlier this year), but most people at the show agreed that it worked well. Only 500 bottles have been produced at this stage; they will go on sale on December 9th (priced at 6,500 yen).
© Stefan Van Eycken
They had also brought two new single cask bottlings that are available as of today: a 1988 ex-sherry cask (#569, 349 bottles, 750ml) and a 1989 American White Oak cask (#619, 384 bottles, 750ml). The former is definitely one of the best sherried Mars single casks up until now; the latter is just a classic example of how wonderful the old Mars spirit and American White Oak go together. Prices keep rising, though, it must be said. Whereas last year these kind of single casks could be had for around 15,000 yen, the two new specimens will cost you 20,000  and 18,000 yen respectively. That’s a lot of money, but there’s very little old stock left. At the time of writing, the oldest vintages still maturing are 1990 and 1991. It’s almost 4 years since they fired up the stills again and they have to spread out the old stock for at least 6 more years, until they’ve got a new 10yo to replace their current 10yo  (which is from the pre-hiatus time at Shinshu). Things are going very well, though. There are plans to add a new warehouse to the Shinshu site. At the moment, they’re busy making wine, but from January 2014 they will start making whisky again (until April). They’re also expecting to release the first whisky from the new regime (i.e. post-2011) in the summer of next year. Something to look forward to.
© Stefan Van Eycken
Other highlights of the show included a 40yo Glenury Royal (1970/2011) and Dutch distillers Zuidam’s Millstone 100 Rye. There may have been some other gems, but – and this was another oft-heard criticism – with so many drams only available for extra dosh (500/1,000 yen for a sip), it’s not really financially viable to try everything you’d want to. I think it’s clear this needs to be rethought: on the one hand, it’s understandable that distillers/retailers are apprehensive about offering older/more expensive whiskies for unlimited free tasting; on the other hand, it’s a bit of a turn-off for the consumer to always have to reach for the wallet in order to try anything even remotely interesting. Many visitors we spoke to failed to understand why at an event that they paid to get into and that is all about PR for the participating exhibitors, it was necessary to pay so much extra just to get a chance to sample the products on display.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

New Mars Single Casks

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
When we last spoke to our friends at Mars Distillery, they said they would be releasing a couple of new single casks in the fall. The first of these just went on sale a few days ago. For this release, distillery manager Koki Takehira selected an American White Oak cask (#555) and bottled it at 46% abv.

It’s dangerous to jump to conclusions when it comes to bottling strength (“oh, why not cask-strength?”). They’re extremely meticulous when it comes to deciding the appropriate bottling strength – it’s not a routine decision, at all, and it’s not driven by marketing considerations either. For the people at Mars, bottling strength is just another variable that they carefully investigate and tweak until they feel it results in the best possible drinking experience.

There’s more of this release to go around than the 22yo and 24yo offerings they put out earlier this year – 468 bottles, to be precise – but it’s priced a bit higher (at around 19,000 yen). Word on the street is they’re planning to unveil another 1988 at the upcoming Whisky Festival in Tokyo. Nonjatta will be there so you’ll find out first hand what that’s all about.

Read more about Hombo Mars Distillery here.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

2 Mysterious Mars Single Casks

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Today, we’ll be looking at two rather mysterious Mars single cask bottlings – mysterious because nobody seems to know much about them, not even the people at Mars themselves. We asked the current master distiller and, despite having bottled them himself, he only vaguely remembered these two whiskies. Uncharacteristically, there’s also very little in the way of information on the labels: there’s a 20yo (‘Kansyou-issiki’) with no further details about vintage, type of cask or year of bottling; and a 22yo  (‘Rakugoku Shinshu’) that only specifies the wood type (American white oak) and the outturn (166 bottles). Both were bottled at cask strength (57% and 58% abv, respectively)… a couple of years ago. Don’t ask when!
We’ll start with the youngest, the 20yo. On the nose, there’s vanilla – loads of it –, crème brulée, custard pudding, cotton candy, … You get the gist. Basically, it’s a combo of advocaat and chinsuko cookies. Water brings out a bit of wood smoke and some fruit (ripe peaches). On the palate, you get cherry sauce, lemon pie, rhubarb jam, chinsuko cookies again and quite a bit of pepper (of the white and pink variety) as well as some tannins. The finish is medium-long and rather dry on dried apricots – apologies for the alliteration, it wasn’t intentional – and vanilla ice-cream. It’s nice enough, but rather one-dimensional, to be honest.
The 22yo is a completely different story. Just nosing it, you instantly know you’re in for a treat. You get the sweetness (cough syrup, butterscotch, honey-glazed doughnuts), but this time, it’s beautifully complemented by savoury (barbecued ribs, shepherd’s pie), spicy (cloves, nutmeg, cardamom) and baked-goods notes (shortbread, knäckebröd, pretzels). After a while, you get roasted coffee beans and even truffles. What a great nose. Then, on the palate, the whisky surprises with citrus (Seville oranges, ruby grapefruit), red fruits (berry compote) and a bit of spice (shichimi). The finish is long – endless, really – on citrus and honey, throat candy, red apple peel, blood orange sorbet and mild spices. Intense and gorgeous. We don’t know much about it, but a whisky like this doesn’t need credentials. Its beauty speaks volumes.

Special thanks to Aaron for bringing these rare Mars single casks to our attention.

Read more about Hombo Mars Distillery here.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Mars / Shinanoya’s ‘Petit Old Bottle’ Project

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Last Sunday, we had the pleasure of trying the two ‘new old’ Mars bottlings (check our original report here) in avant-premiere in the company of the Shinanoya people who made this double release happen and Takehira-san, the current master distiller at Mars. We had high expectations and the whiskies did not disappoint – quite the contrary –, the American white oak bottling being a particularly fine exponent of young single cask Mars.
© Stefan Van Eycken
Since we announced these bottlings, some of our readers have expressed surprise – to the point of concern – about the fact that both casks were bottled at 43%, i.e. not at cask strength. The truth of the matter is that, at the time of bottling, the people at Mars felt that the finer nuances of the liquid in the respective casks were masked by an overly strong alcohol bite. In the interest of balance – a quality they feel very strongly about at Mars, then and now – they reduced the strength to a point where these finer nuances had a chance of making their presence felt. That they hit the nail on the head 10 years ago became clear on Sunday: those who were unaware of the fact that these single casks had been bottled at 43%, didn’t notice the drop in strength at all.

The people involved in this ‘petit old bottle’ release also commented on the fact that the whisky’s 10 years in the bottle had had a subtle effect on its character. The American white oak bottling had developed a more fruity character, whereas in the case of the ex-sherry release, a decade of refinement in the bottle had eliminated some of the slight sulphury notes and softened the overall flavour profile. The original idea was for Shinanoya to choose one or the other, but they felt this duo presented a unique opportunity to compare the effects of different wood on whisky of the same age from the same distillery.

Kameido Ume Garden / Flowering Plum Tree
Thunderstorm at Ohashi / Bridge in the Rain
For the labels, the people at Shinanoya decided to use Vincent Van Gogh’s re-interpretations (‘Flowering Plum Tree’ and ‘Bridge in the Rain’) of two woodblock prints from Utagawa Hiroshige’s ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’ (‘Kameido Ume Garden’ and ‘Thunderstorm at Ohashi’ resp.). Van Gogh’s works were painted in the wake of a Japan-mania that spread amongst French artists after 1870, later referred to as ‘Japonism’. Interesting as much for what is distinct in these re-interpretations (the use of different, brighter colours and enhanced colour contrasts) as what is taken from the original, it’s tempting to see a parallel with the way whisky-making techniques and ideas were transferred from Scotland and re-interpreted here in Japan.

One more thing: if you’re thinking of getting both bottles, you actually have the chance to experience a third. Owner/bartender Toru Suzuki of The Mash Tun in Tokyo tried his – experienced! – hand at blending both and found that a ratio of 2 parts American white oak to 1 part Spanish oak produces a lovely amalgam highlighting the best of both worlds.

The master distiller at work © Yasuko Ikeda for Nonjatta
We spoke with master distiller Takehira-san at length and learned about the many exciting things happening at Mars Shinshu now and his vision for the future… but that’s for another time and another post. In the meantime, don't forget to mark September 12th in your calendar – that’s when the two ‘Japonism’  bottles (priced at 7.580 yen each) officially go on sale.

Read more about Hombo Mars Distillery here.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

2 New Old Mars Single Casks for Shinanoya

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

When Mars Shinshu stopped producing whisky in 1992, it seemed like the end of a whisky adventure with lots of ups and downs – more downs than ups, actually. Few, even in the company, could have predicted the incredible revival of Mars in the wake of the highball boom: critical acclaim for their old stock from the whisky community first at home and then abroad (with their “3+25” crowned ‘Best Blended Malt in the World’ at the last World Whiskies Awards) and a return to distilling in 2011, led by a young master distiller with a keen sense of craftsmanship and a think-outside-the-box mentality.
Two casks from the last year of production before the 19-year hiatus were bottled in 2004 (at 43%abv) and then left to refine inside the bottle… or forgotten, whichever you prefer: one a Spanish oak sherry butt (#1124, 275 bottles), the other an American white oak barrel (#1143, 358 bottles). The people at Shinanoya felt it was high time these bottles saw the light of day. They adorned them with lovely “Japonist” labels and will be releasing them officially, more than 9 years after they were filled, on September 12th.

A special Mars tasting event, led by the current master distiller, will be held at The Mash Tun in Tokyo on September 1st. We’ll be speaking to the Mars people about these and other forthcoming releases at the event and hope to be able to bring you more news from the good folk at ‘Shinshu factory’ then. Stay tuned…

Read more about Hombo Mars Distillery here.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

News from the Whisky Festival 2013 in Osaka

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
For this year's edition of the Whisky Festival in Osaka, the organizers (the Scotch Whisky Research Centre) moved to a more spacious venue in the heart of Osaka, the Umeda Sky Building. This seems to have been a smart move on their part as the crowds were considerably larger than last year, too. It's the most important forum for whisky enthusiasts based in Kansai, but for some reason, the festival is not generally used as a platform for Japanese distillers and retailers to launch new or upcoming releases. Two of our favourite local craft distillers - Venture Whisky (Chichibu) and Hombo Shuzo (Mars) - were there but they didn't have any new products to showcase. We did catch a glimpse of one much anticipated bottling, though…

We had heard rumours of a new Karuizawa single cask jointly chosen by three Japanese whisky retailers a few months ago, but were sworn to secrecy. A release of this bottling at the festival was anticipated by some - seeing as each of the three retailers had a booth at the festival - but the fact of the matter is it won't be out until next month. "The Joint Bottling of HST" (which stands for Liquors Hasegawa, Sake Shop Sato and Whisky Shop Tamagawaya) is a 14yo Karuizawa (1999/2013, Cask#2316) and, as you can see, the label shows the position of the three shops in relation to the Karuizawa distillery… well, the place where it used to be. It's not clear how many bottles there will be, but it's safe to say they'll be gone before you know it. It's a Japan-only release and, unfortunately for the fans abroad, the shops will not be shipping this outside Japan. We'll have tasting notes for you as soon as it is officially out.

official festival bottling
There were a few new or soon-to-be-released single cask Scotch whiskies at the festival. The official festival bottling was a 16yo Clynelish (1996/2012, #8778, 51.7%abv) drawn from a refill sherry cask. A lovely dram.  The indefatigable people at Shinanoya had brought two upcoming releases to the festival, a 27yo Macduff (sourced from A.D. Rattray) and a 33yo Caol Ila (sourced from Three Rivers). The latter was an absolute stunner. Bottled to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Bar Caol Ila in Tokyo and featuring Botticelli's Allegory of Spring, this is bound to join the pantheon of great Shinanoya releases - and there are more than a few of those! It was drawn from bourbon hogshead #5306 and bottled at a cask-strength of 55.8%abv. The official release date is July 25th so keep an eye on their website around that time.

Liquors Hasegawa adopted a strategy of surprise at the festival. With so many whiskies vying for the attention of people's tastebuds (and wallets), they had chosen to spotlight a selection of armagnacs. A bold move, but it paid off, since one of the indisputable highlights of the festival was an armagnac: a 1963 Dartigalongue Bas Armagnac. Phenomenal stuff. Other personal highlights include a 1965 (40yo) Clan Denny Invergordon single cask grain whisky (courtesy of World Liquor Brutus) and a 1977 (34yo) Glenturret sherry hogshead from Berry Bros. & Rudd.

We were also very happy to hear Dutch distiller Zuidam's products will finally be available in Japan from August. We're big fans of their Millstone whiskies and other spirits as well (try their 5-year old cask-matured 'genever'!) and, in fact, next month, we will be visiting their distillery as part of a new series ('Nonjatta on the Road').

As said, not much in the way of new Japanese releases, but it's clear our local distillers are not resting on their laurels. Take the case of Mars distillery. Their traditional whisky-making season (winter) was just three months: January to March. This year they extended it by one month, and the idea for next season is to start one month earlier and add another month at the end (December to May), keeping them busy for half the year. Because of the increased productivity, they are currently considering building a new warehouse on the same site in Shinshu to mature their whiskies. They're really dedicated to producing whisky of the highest quality and are in it for the long haul. Further proof, if any were needed, of how serious they are: their master distiller has been to Scotland to hone his skills (in Speyside - at Longmorn distillery, among others) and to learn about malting. It'll be interesting to see how they put these newly-acquired skills to use in the future. In the meantime, they're working on several new releases. They're continuing their wine-finishing adventures. Usually, wine finishes are applied to single casks (to be released as such, or prior to being vatted/blended). The people at Mars do it a little differently - and successfully so, judging by the unanimously positive reception of their "Iwai Wine Cask Finish": they compose their blend first and finish that in wine casks. They've got a wine-cask finished version of their 10yo in the pipeline. It was put into wine casks last year and will probably be released some time in 2015. They've also picked two single casks for release later this year or early next year. Exciting times up there in Nagano.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Mars Iwai Tradition Wine Cask Finish

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Regular readers of Nonjatta will know we’re big fans of Shinshu Mars Distillery. We regularly make the trek to Nagano prefecture – which is a joy in itself – to check out what they’re up to there, whether it’s making whisky during the winter or craft beers (at Minami Shinshu Brewery, which is located on the same premises and operated by the same staff) the rest of the year. They’re experimenting in many different ways, from trying out yeast strains used to brew their beers in whisky production to maturing their spirit in extreme climate conditions elsewhere in the country. We’ll fill you in on all the details in due time, but today, we’re happy to spotlight another area they’ve been experimenting in: finishing.

Hombo Shuzo – the company behind Mars Distillery – produces many kinds of alcoholic beverages at various places in Japan, so it’s a bit surprising it took them so long to hit on the idea of using ex-red wine casks from their Chateau Mars winery in neighbouring Yamanashi prefecture to finish their whiskies. For their first project in this field, they decided to use their blended whisky “Iwai Tradition” and finish it for over a year in ex-red wine casks. It officially went on sale today but I doubt it will be around for very long. Why? Well, (a) because it’s really good; (b) it’s priced at around 2,000 yen for a 750ml bottle (yes, that’s 15 EUR/20 USD); and (c) there are only 2,495 bottles… At the same time, they’ve also repackaged their regular “Iwai Tradition” and that’s even cheaper.

With these uncharacteristically low prices (for Japanese whisky, that is), people tend to become a bit suspicious. Rest assured: the quality is there. “Iwai Tradition” is a bit of an oddity among Japanese blends, and not everyone will take to it, but we are very fond of its quirky taste profile, which features notes of rye bread, fresh pasta and baked goods. The interesting thing with the “Wine Cask Finish” is that – while there are obvious influences from the wine casks – the secondary maturation actually seems to have enhanced those grain (not as in ‘grain whisky’, but actual grains – wheat, rye, etc) notes.

Both the regular and the wine finished “Iwai Tradition” were bottled at 40%abv but because it’s a whisky with body and weight to it, it doesn’t actually feel like it needs a higher abv. It works perfectly well at 40% abv. We’ll do a head-to-head tasting of both new “Iwai Tradition” releases, and throw in one bottled a few years ago for comparison, too. But don't wait for our notes to grab a bottle or six, because by the time we get round to putting our post up, most of it may already have been snapped up by discerning whisky drinkers here.

Read more about Hombo Mars Distillery here.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mars Komagatake 22yo and 24yo

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

The two new Mars releases we wrote about in our TIBS/Whisky Live 2013 report have now been released. Just to refresh your memory: there’s a 22yo and a 24yo, and both are vattings of 4 casks, but they’re very different, indeed.
The Mars Komagatake 22yo is a vatting of two American White Oak casks (#1042 and #1039), an ex-sherry cask (#384) and a refill (ex-Scotch) cask (#481), bottled at 43% abv (750ml) and with an outturn of 1,359 bottles. This retails for around 9,000 yen. Then, there’s the 24yo – and that’s really special. During yearly routine checks of their mature stock, the whisky makers at Mars discovered a quartet of ex-bourbon casks that they really liked. On further inspection, it became clear that the level in each of the casks was very low and that a release as single cask(s) was out of the question. So, they put the contents of the 4 casks together and bottled them at vatting strength (58%abv, also 750ml). The outturn? A mere 120 bottles.

It shouldn't be too hard to find the 22yo. To secure a bottle of the 24yo however, you may have to jump through a few hoops (no pun intended). It would surprise me if the few retailers who actually managed to get hold of a few bottles have the chance to put it on their shelves/online. But you never know…

Read more about Hombo Mars Distillery here.

Friday, March 22, 2013

World Whiskies Awards 2013: Japan takes World’s Best Blended & Best Blended Malt Whisky

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

The results of the World Whiskies Awards 2013 are in and there are some surprises, and that’s putting it mildly. Without further ado, here are the world’s best whiskies as of today:

World’s Best Whisky Liqueur: Speyside Whisky Liqueur 40yo (Master of Malt)
World’s Best Grain Whisky: Bains Cape Mountain Whisky (Distell)
World’s Best American Whiskey: George T. Stagg (Buffalo Trace)
World’s Best Blended Whisky: Hibiki 21 (Suntory)
World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky: Mars Maltage 3+25 (28yo) (Hombo Shuzo)
World’s Best Single Malt Whisky: Ardbeg Galileo (The Glenmorangie Company)
The people at Suntory will have mixed feelings about this year’s results: on the one hand, Hibiki 21 managed to get the title of “World’s Best Blended Whisky” back – which they lost to Three Ships 5yo last year after two consecutive years at the top (2010, 2011) – but they didn’t manage to consolidate last year’s success of their Yamazaki 25 single malt. I’m sure people who’ve had the chance to compare the Yamazaki 25 and the Ardbeg Galileo will be more than a little surprised at the result – and I certainly am, but then again, I’m biased since I was one of the judges who served on the Japanese tasting panel. However, that’s the nature of the beast… you can’t win them all.

The big surprise, but not to people who know the whisky – and it must be said, even here in Japan and even among whisky aficionados, there aren’t many –, is the Mars Maltage 3+25. To understand why this blended malt is so special, you need to know a few things about the twists and turns in Hombo Shuzo’s whisky making history. The company’s whisky production is currently based in Nagano, at their “Shinshu factory”, but this particular blended malt whisky comes from the pre-Shinshu days and from their first forays into whisky production. After years of simply blending malt and grain produced by others, Kiichiro Iwai set up a distillery in Yamanashi in 1960. Less than a decade later (in 1969), Hombo Shuzo was forced to close the distillery due to poor sales. Towards the end of the 70s, whisky started to become popular again in Japan and the company was keen to restart their whisky operations. By that time, however, the Yamanashi site had been converted into a winery. They set up a temporary distillery in Kagoshima – on the island of Kyushu – in 1978 and kept looking for another site. In 1984, whisky production at Kagoshima was stopped, and the year after, they fired up the stills at the present location in Nagano.

So why “3+25” rather than simply calling it a 28yo? Well, the “3” in 3+25 refers to malt aged a minimum of three years that was matured in Kagoshima. This was then transferred by tanker to the new site in Nagano, where it spent the next 25 years maturing. Since it is – technically – a 28yo, it obviously does not contain any malt distilled in Nagano, but it does contain a proportion of malt from the Yamanashi days (i.e. the 60s), making it a “blended malt” (the preferred nomenclature in Japan being “pure malt”): i.e. a blend of malt from the Yamanashi and the Kagoshima distillery.

I happened to be at the distillery in Nagano a few days ago, and – by pure coincidence – they were, in fact, getting ready to bottle the last of their Maltage 3+25 (see the picture above). There will be about 2,500 bottles more, and while it wasn’t really a big seller up until now (this being the most expensive item in Mars’ regular whisky range), once word about the WWA 2013 award will get out, stocks won’t last long, I’m sure. There is no more malt from the Kagoshima (let alone the Yamanashi) days at the Mars warehouses in Nagano, so once this is gone, it’s gone forever. There’s also a hiatus of nearly two decades in their Shinshu whisky production (no whisky was distilled between 1992 and 2010) so it will not be so easy to repeat this a few years down the line. However, the people at Mars are experimenting with lots of different things since they resumed production in early 2011 – this will be covered in more depth in my forthcoming book on Japanese whisky – and one of the things they have in mind is a sort of “reverse 3+25”, i.e. sending 3 year-old malt from the new production regime at Shinshu factory in Nagano to the Hombo warehouses in Kagoshima for a further 25-year period of maturation. I’ll be eligible for a senior citizen pass by the time this reaches the market, but it’ll be worth the wait, I’m sure.

A further obstacle to wider appreciation of this truly incredible blended malt is the fact that Hombo Shuzo does not export any of its products. People have tried to interest them in this in the past, but their priority at the moment is the home market and establishing a name and wider appreciation for their portfolio in Japan. Their stock of older malt is very limited, and since they have only been distilling again for 3 years (and only in the winter), they simply don’t have the capacity to reach out to other markets. One thing is clear, though: this award will be an encouragement to the team working at Mars Shinshu now under master distiller Koki Takehira, and it will lead many people – some of whom may have been slightly prejudiced about the work of smaller domestic whisky producers – to give their products a try. We happen to know that two single malts from the early Shinshu-days are scheduled for release next month (one of which will be an ultra-limited one) and that the current whisky makers are thinking of releasing their first 3yo later next year. Exciting times for the people at Mars – we’re big fans and wish them all the best.

We would also like to congratulate the other winners in the 2013 World Whiskies Awards. It’s one of the toughest competitions in the business, and to be recognized as “the best in the world” is not a case of empty hyperbole. These whiskies came out on top after months of blind tastings worldwide by people with considerable experience in this area. It’s an incredible achievement, but in the world of whisky, it doesn’t pay to rest on your laurels. In the larger scheme of things, serious competitions like the WWA encourage whisky makers to keep raising the bar in their goal to create the best whiskies they can.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Japanese Distilleries: a new comprehensive web resource

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

The people at Whisky Magazine Japan have just launched a very interesting new branch of their site - “Japanese Distilleries” - which provides factual information about all Japanese distilleries, past and present, in both English and Japanese. Organized as a map with clickable distillery pinpoints, it gives you a profile of each distillery, followed by information about the core range, address, tour options, access, as well as details of a more technical nature (number of pot stills, washbacks, materials used, warehouses, etc.) that will appeal to the whisky anorak. It’s already very impressive, but it’s just a starting point. The people at Whisky Magazine Japan are in close contact with the distilleries and the aim is to make this a comprehensive resource about Japanese distilleries and their whiskies. They’re not just looking towards the industry for input, though. The idea is to take a 360-degree approach with ideas, comments and maybe articles submitted by writers, bloggers and even regular whisky lovers who may want to share something about a distillery visit or have another story to tell. This promises to be a much-needed central reference for enthusiasts of Japanese whisky. Definitely a page to bookmark.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Whisky Festival in Tokyo 2012

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

It's clear the people behind the Whisky Festival in Tokyo - that would be Mamoru Tsuchiya and his Scotch Whisky Research Centre - are doing something right. More and more people seem to find their way to the festival every year, and while many of the same whisky makers and retailers show up year after year (but - I hasten to add - always with new and interesting products), there are always a few whisky producers making their debut. The surprise of the day for me was Box Whisky, a Swedish distillery I'd heard a lot about but not seen or tasted any whiskies from. Of the three different cask styles available at the festival (ex-bourbon, ex-sherry and Hungarian oak - and each of these had a peated and a non-peated expression), I thought the Hungarian non-peated oak expression showed incredible promise. It was only a few months old, but I can easily imagine what a beauty this will be a few years down the line.
For most people, the first port of call was the Shinanoya stand. Not just one, but two store-exclusive bottlings were available for pre-order. Judging from the queues at their stand, I can't imagine there's much left of either. After their 1995 Karuizawa - released earlier this year - people had been waiting impatiently for the follow-up and there it was: a 1981 single cask Karuizawa drawn from an ex-bourbon cask (a first for the Japanese market, if I'm not mistaken), bottled at 60.0% abv with an outturn of 228. The second Shinanoya bottling unveiled at the festival was a little more surprising - although word had already leaked on the internet a few days earlier: a new Hanyu in their acclaimed "The Game" series. This is the third one in the series, and this time it was finished in a hogshead with red oak heads (outturn: 309 bottles). I had the chance to try them at the festival - with people breathing down my neck from all sides - but releases of this caliber deserve peace and quiet and undivided attention which is why we'll be bringing you detailed tasting notes later this week.

Another place where things were pretty hectic was Whisky Venture's booth. No new Chichibu releases this time but four new "cards" (if you don't know what that means, just skip this paragraph), all with different finishes: "Seven of Spades" (1990/2012, finished in a cognac cask), "Six of Hearts" (1991/2012, finished in an American oak puncheon); "Five of Diamonds" (2000/2012, finished in a sherry butt) and "Ace of Clubs" (2000/2012, finished in a mizunara puncheon). Everybody seemed to have their own favourite(s) - I was instantly seduced by the "cognac" card - but they were all stunning, as always.

I was happy to see the wonderful people from Mars distillery again. They had brought their 3rd "New Pot" release (which will be available from tomorrow). Last year, they'd put out 2 "New Pot" bottles, to show people what they'd been doing since they re-fired the stills after a 19-year hiatus: those two were lightly-peated (7.9 ppm) and heavily-peated (19 ppm) respectively. This year's offering is a really-heavily-peated one (50 ppm) and just like the other ones, it was distilled in the winter (i.e. the first months of the year) and then kept in a stainless steel tank for 9 months, so it really is "new pot" and not matured new-make spirit. If you're not into that kind of stuff (whisky-in-progress, or whatever you want to call it), reconsider now! This heavily-peated new pot spirit is of such an incredible elegance that I'd buy up the entire stock in the blink of an eye - if they'd let me... which they won't, because there's not much to go around. They produced only about 1,800 liters of this 50 ppm spirit this year (just 3 batches) - and put most of it in American white oak ex-bourbon barrels, some of it in virgin oak (which I predict will work very well!), a bit in a port pipe (an experiment of sorts) and the rest in 1099 little 200ml bottles, and that's what you can try now! The idea with these little 200 ml bottles of new pot spirit is to give the consumer the chance to keep "monitoring" the progress. Each type will get a follow-up when the whisky reaches 3 years, and then more later, so don't finish everything... or buy a few of these little bottles, because this is really a unique chance to see how distillery character and wood influence change over time. If you're a fan of Mars distillery's older output (i.e. the pre-hiatus casks), start saving up for February. The master distiller and his team are currently choosing some new single casks to be bottled soon: one has already been selected and there may be one that will surprise more than a few people, so watch this space. They also had a new bottling for the local market - for people to take home as souvenirs - which isn't really a new bottling, as it is basically the same as their "7&3" blend. It's reassuring to see they're pretty busy up there in Nagano.
There were a lot of other brilliant things to experience: Suntory W. Shop's single grain whisky (which we wrote about earlier this week), an unexpectedly nice Highland Park festival bottling (a vatting of casks from 1973, 1976, 1991 and 1998, done by the head honcho of the Scotch Whisky Research Centre), smoked foods from those wizards at Yokohama Kunsei, some lovely pipe tunes played by the incomparable Takeshi Mogi, but for me the absolute star of the event was a bottle quietly sitting among its label-mates, a hidden beauty if ever there was one: this Berry Bros' and Rudd 1974 single cask (sherry hogshead) Glen Grant. Pure magic.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Distillery Vignettes (2): Mars Mizunara Casks

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

"Mizunara"... the word itself is to many Japanese whisky aficionados what Pavlov's bell was to his illustrious dogs. When a Mizunara bottling is released, people reach for their wallets faster than they're used to - these bottlings are usually sold out within a matter of days, if not hours. And woe betide you if you've got the "mizunara bug" but happen to be otherwise occupied during those days or hours - in other words, if you happen to work for a living -, because then you'll have to pay for it and pay for it dearly ... on the auction circuit.
What is the appeal, I hear you say? Sure, a big part of it is the uniqueness factor - it's Japanese oak - but there's more to it than that. The wood brings flavours to the game that you just don't find elsewhere, and sexy flavours they are too, at least to my mind: sandalwood, incense, the smell of temples here in Japan, strong coconut aromas, etc. Like most discoveries in whisky making, and indeed the discovery of whisky making itself, the use of mizunara is rooted in serendipity. As importing casks for the maturation of whisky became more difficult as the Second Sino-Japanese war escalated, Japanese distillers - Suntory at the forefront - started looking for domestic alternatives. Coopers started using Japanese oak, but they quickly discovered their homegrown oak was more difficult to handle than European or American oak. With Japanese oak, the quantity of tyloses (blocking the radial pores of the wood) is much less and so the wood is more porous making casks more prone to leaking. This is one of the reasons why mizunara staves are cut quite thick. Japanese oak also has more knots than European or American oak, so it's harder to cooper from that point of view as well. It wasn't just challenging to the cooper's skills, it was rather challenging to the palate as well. Blenders felt whisky matured in mizunara casks was too in-your-face in terms of aroma and taste. It just overpowered everything else in the blend. What they didn't know at the time, but discovered later, was that mizunara wood needs time to work its magic... a little bit like Henry Rollins - five minutes may just bewilder you, but go to a four- or five-hour show and you'll know what I mean!

Anyway, back to whisky. Suntory and Nikka all make extensive use of mizunara wood, although it is more expensive than the standard alternatives. It's an important part of their signature blends and the awards they've picked up over the years clearly show the trouble is worth the effort. For smaller distillers, it's much more difficult to use mizunara - obviously because they lack the economies of scale - so most of them don't (didn't) bother. Unsurprisingly, Akuto-san (Hanyu/Chichibu) is the exception. Never one to avoid obstacles, he has recently started experimenting with using mizunarawood for the cask heads only. There is another exception, however.

A few weeks ago, I happened to be at Mars (Shinshu) Distillery in Nagano prefecture - and I spent a bit of quality time in their warehouse. Imagine my surprise when I saw this:

two mizunara casks that have patiently been maturing for decades. The master distiller told me they stayed away from those casks - the flavours too overbearing, the ugly ducklings of the warehouse - but that in recent years, they had noticed a change... a mellowing in profile, the rough edges gone and that finally, they may be coming into their own and may be reaching their prime soon. There are no plans to bottle these, as yet, but when they do, make sure you're one of the lucky few to hear the bell ringing.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mars Shinshu new single casks

By Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic:
As previously revealed by Stefan from Tokyowhiskyhub in May from his TIBS/Whisky Live Tokyo 2012 report, there are now some new single cask releases from Mars Shinshu that have gone on sale this week. At the time the distillery presented two different single casks. What wasn't revealed was there is also a Cognac Cask. The three single casks are:

Mars Komagatake Single Cask Vintage 1989 23YO 57.9% American White Oak Cask #1041
Mars Komagatake Single Cask Vintage 1985 27YO 60.7% Sherry Cask #162
Mars Komagatake Single Cask Vintage 1989 23YO 63.5% Cognac Limousin Cask #1060

The picture attached is of the Cognac Cask with all bottles looking the same but obviously details on the label reflect the different casks. Prices in Japan are 15,750 yen for the two '89 bottlings and 18,900 yen for the '85 though this may vary slightly for different retailers. For those having these shipped from Japan to overseas, the prices are respectively 15,000 yen and 18,000 yen. As these are far rarer than say, Karuizawa, I personally think this is very fair. I have purchased all three and hope to have tasting notes on Nonjatta soonish.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mars Malt Gallery Single Cask 1985 23YO American White Oak #324 58% abv

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic:

Mars Malt Gallery Single Cask 1985 23YO American White Oak #324 58% abv
Nose: This one leads with vanilla, toffee and a floral note. Then, strawberries, manuka honey, light oak, maple syrup on flapjacks, stewed plums. Water adds toasted marshmallows
Palate: Chewy toffee, honey on wheat toast, teak, macadamia nut, port, brazil nut, light pipe tobacco, marshmallows, creamed corn, stewed plums. Balanced.
Finish: Medium on burnt toffee, marshmallows, strawberries, macadamias, creamed corn, some drying oak.
Excellent. Another fine Mars from an American White Oak Cask.

Mars Malt Gallery Single Cask 1991 18YO American White Oak #1110 58% abv

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic:

Mars Malt Gallery Single Cask 1991 18YO American White Oak #1110 58% abv
Nose: Quite light. Honey, creme brulee, strawberries, sugared apples, fresh oak, ginger, toasted muesli, pine needles. A little water brings out toffee, vanilla and a floral note.
Palate: Toasted oak, honey toasted muesli, strawberries, pancakes, a little resinous. With water some vanilla.
Finish: Medium on honey toasted muesli, pancakes, vanilla, strawberry and a dash of dry oak. Really liked it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Seijo Ishii Mars Single Cask


Post by Nonjatta contributor Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

Many enthusiasts of Japanese whisky will know that Mars (Shinshu) distillery started distilling again in the early spring of last year after a hiatus of almost 20 years (they stopped distilling in 1992).

Mars occasionally puts out some interesting single cask releases from the days before they stopped. These are available through the distillery's online shop and from the better liquor shops in Japan. They very rarely bottle single casks exclusively for retailers--I know of only two cases--but a third exclusive bottling has been available for a few months now.

It was bottled for the posh supermarket chain Seijo Ishii from an American white oak ex-sherry butt (cask #902), distilled in February 1990 and bottled in November 2011 at a whopping strength of 64.7% abv. Bottles are individually numbered - the out turn was 425 or 430 bottles (depending on whether you believe the numbering on the bottles or the information on the promotional materials displayed at the supermarket).

As usual, they're a bit on the expensive side (16,900 yen or about 200 dollars for a 21-year-old). Mars single casks can be a bit hit-or-miss, and I haven't been able to sample it yet, so the jury is still out as to whether the liquid justifies the steep price tag.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Mars New Pot Heavily Peated (10-months-old)

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic:

Mars New Pot Heavily Peated (10-months-old). 60 percent alcohol.
Nose: A surprising amount going on. Fresh young notes of linseed oil, shoe polish, leather, sump oil, honey, lemon cough drops, burnt corn kernels, flat soda water, wort/hops.
Palate: Peat, of course; chocolate, lemon, sump oil, malt, hops. Surprisingly drinkable neat at 60 per cent. Water brings out some toffee.
Finish: Long on the flavours of the palate with an ashy dryness. If this was a new make Scottish single malt, I'd say Caol Ila.
General comment: Although you can tell this is a relatively immature spirit, there are no harsh acetone notes. Very promising stuff.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Mars Maltage 3 Plus 25

Note from Nonjatta: For more information on this rather unique whisky, please see this post.

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic:

Mars Maltage 3 Plus 25. 28-year-old pure malt. 46 per cent alcohol.
Nose: Luscious. A huge hit of apricots. Ginger, soft leather, Seville oranges, lemon barley, toffee, vanilla, stewed rhubarb, lime juice, gentle pepper, a little pine nut, pineapple, walnut, licorice, and a waxy element.
Palate: Smooth and rounded. Big toffee, apricot jam, pepper, stewed rhubarb, Chinese 5 spice. Can oak be creamy? Sweetened corn, pistachios, leather, frangipani, strawberry compote, walnuts, licorice.
Finish: Medium-long. Balanced on a sweet/dry combo then a little minerally.
General comment: A stunning whisky that reminds me somewhat of Hibiki 21. Complex and faultless.