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.

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