“Nothing Found. Sorry, but nothing matched your search terms. Please try again with some different keywords.” Well, that’s a surprise! I searched for Hombo Shuzo and there is not a single review of a Mars bottle here in Malt Review. That changes today. In a way, I can see why. It’s getting harder and harder to relate to Japanese whiskies in a truly meaningful way. It’s either you get some overpriced NAS or, worse, a fake – well, misrepresented is the proper term; it’s real whisky, just not distilled and matured in Japan. And many have fallen prey.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics was eagerly anticipated by many and was poised to showcase Japan to the world. The beauty of the country, the amazing cuisine, its lovely people, interesting culture and the oh-so-coveted Japanese whiskies. The lure of the mystical Far East still attracts sizeable attention. And coupled with the pomp and pageantry of the Olympics, it was bound to be an economic blockbuster. A whisky windfall for both consumer and distiller. Some distilleries like Yamazaki – not surprising – had already announced some expressions to commemorate the occasion. There’s the “new” Yamazaki 18-years-old 2020 version, and then the screaming (you’ll scream your head off at the price) 55-year-old Japan-only-lottery 100-bottle release. These are being sold even before the Olympics begins but, I’d wager, that there are “super-duper special limited Japan-only editions” that were scheduled to be released before and during the duration of the Games.
Then Covid-19 happened and the world turned upside down. Ahhh, the best-laid plans of mice and men.
It’s not such a tragedy. If you ask me, those might even be more collectable now as there is no 2020 Olympics to speak of. Flippers will go nuts and I’m sure those that will be released, if any, will fetch a pretty sum on the auction block, resale market or make for a very expensive conversation piece. How pretentious. To be fair, every hobby is the same. It’s just that every year, it seems getting harder and harder to find some decent Japanese dram that doesn’t cause you to pause first and dwell on existential questions before parting with your hard-earned cash. The newly minted worshippers flock to the usual churches, paying ridiculous prices thus driving them even higher. Even in the Land of the Rising Sun, it’s hard to find decent bottles. And this is a surprise for most.
Enterprising folks saw this as an opportunity to, well, make easy money; releasing “Japanese” whiskies with obscure names – yes, kinda like what some scotch distilleries do – and pricing them accordingly; high enough to pass as the real thing but not too high as to arouse suspicion and make it seem like a bargain compared to some similarly aged established brands. Match that with an enticing label, the vague “Made in Japan” or “Japanese Whiskey” tagline and you’ve got a winner. Itchy trigger fingers and FOMO – fear of missing out – are a bad combination, even in this age of information. Although I’ve read that some of these highly dubious brands like Kurayoshi have received their distilling license and have started their road to redemption, distilling locally back in 2017. No doubt with laser-focused sights to a whole new world that was supposed to be opened by the Olympics.
It’s not all bad, if you ask me. With the Japanese whisky boom, various well-respected spirits producers like Kanosuke (shochu maker from Kagoshima) have tossed their names into the whisky distilling hat and released some solid early expressions like their New Born 2018 and 2019. Kagoshima, it seems, is a magical place. Traditionally a shochu-producing region, it is now literally littered with distilleries for other different spirits such as gin and whisky. Just recently, Nikka and Suntory have established themselves in the prefecture by acquiring a shochu distillery each – Nikka, the Satsuma Tsukasa Distillery, and Suntory, the Osumi Shuzo. And each have already received their whisky distilling licenses. Hombo Shuzo, owner of Mars Whisky, calls it home.
Hombo Shuzo was founded in 1872 and first received its distilling license in 1949, which was subsequently transferred to Yamanashi in 1960 when the company decided to invest in whisky and wine. The whisky distillery was relocated in 1985 to Shinshu in the Japanese Alps – Japan’s highest distillery at 800m – and came be to be known as Mars Shinshu. It was mothballed in 2000, due to the shrinking demand for Japanese whiskies but restarted production in 2011. This was commemorated with the successful release in 2014 of the Mars Whisky Komagatake Revival 2011. In 2016, Hombo Shuzo opened its second distillery, Mars Tsunuki, in its historical site in Kagoshima. This is now Japan’s most southerly distillery. A kind of homecoming and a look to the future. The trajectory of Mars, aptly named in hindsight, is an interesting journey. But we’ll leave that for another time.
The Mars Tsunagu is a limited edition 300-bottle release for the Isetan department store. Large Japanese department stores such as Isetan and Takashimaya occasionally offer exclusive bottles only available on their liquor stores. Some of these have circulated in the resale market for 5 to 10 times their introductory prices. Crazy, yes, but not uncommon for “limited release” Japanese whiskies. Before the Tsunagu, Isetan released a few expressions from the famed Karuizawa distillery including the single cask 1999-2013: The Last Bottling. Unless you’ve been living under a rock or a cave for the past decade, you’ll know why these are so sought after. Mr Karuizawa himself, Eric Huang – who owns the largest stock, had plans to bottle and release the very last cask at the 2020 Olympics. I’m not excited because I know I won’t be able to afford one. But I digress.
The Tsunagu is the first Mars Whisky bottling for Isetan, which came out in 2014. At that time, it was claimed that only 300 bottles will be produced ever. It’s clear now that there were subsequent releases – possibly 300 bottles each time to keep the narrative – as a friend of mine gifted me this bottle from a fairly recent trip to Tokyo. The first release Tsunagu is a blend composed of young slightly peated single malts aged in bourbon casks and French oak barrels used in the aging of Japanese wine. It is non-chill filtered and bottled at 46% abv. The price at release was 7560 yen (approximately USD70 in today’s currency) but a quick check at some retailers and it’s selling at more than 4x that amount. Steep even for a Japanese blend.
The Mars Maltage Cosmo is a far more affordable affair and widely available. A 43% abv blended malt whisky that’s composed of Japanese malt whisky from Mars and unidentified Scottish malt whisky. At what proportion? Mars, unfortunately, doesn’t tell us. Transparency is not the strong suit of Japanese distillers when it comes to imported malts or raw ingredients used in locally blended whiskies. And it’s why they say “blended and bottled by Hombo Shuzo” on the box. This was introduced in 2015 as part of the Mars core range.
Mars Tsunagu – Review
Colour: diluted iced tea.
On the nose: sweet, very pleasant, ice lemon tea, a tad savoury as well like cured meat with sea salt, demerara sugar, very delicate nose with wafts of butter and Rocky Mountain mini marshmallows.
In the mouth: an easy sipper, nothing complicated with lots of brown sugar, Werthers original caramel candy, faint savoury marinated grilled meat, a bit thin for my taste, diluted, and slightly buttery and bitter towards the short finish. Satisfyingly overall but nothing overly special. I did not taste nor smell any hint of peat or smokiness here.
Score: 5/10 (I deducted one point because it’s too expensive now for what it gives you)
Mars Maltage Cosmo – Review
Colour: Pale copper.
On the nose: sweet, honeyed, orchard fruits, marmalade, very faint smokiness but it’s there, a fleeting whiff of old leather, some lemon in the background.
In the mouth: very easy entry, thin and diluted for my taste, chocolatey, brown sugar, mandarin oranges in the background, that smokiness makes an appearance and that made things a little interesting, the whole experience doesn’t last very long but hits the spot when you’re in a pinch, I guess. Nothing fancy, nor should you expect any.
Mars, and Japanese whiskies in general, have come a long way. Just a mention of Japanese whisky lights up the eyes of many and lifts the atmosphere in any gathering. It’s a profound experience for people and something cool for Instagram. Unfortunately, the surge in demand for aged whiskies over the past decade has consumed most of the available stocks in retailers and has dwindled the warehouse stocks. That’s why you see the proliferation of NAS (no-age statement) whiskies on the market today – the distilleries just can’t keep up even if they wanted to. The lack of or, dare we say, non-existent regulations on Japanese whiskies have made it possible to use Scotch and Irish whiskies in their blends. And this flexibility has been a polarizing topic in many online forums and social media. That’s set to change in the next few years, hopefully, as there is a movement driven by the Japanese Whisky Research Centre (JWRC) to have a more stringent regulatory framework.
The Japanese whisky loch has had a profound impact on the availability and, more importantly, the culture of Japanese whisky today. On one hand, it has spurred new players on the market that would foster competition and innovation in an industry that is very much rooted in tradition. On the other, profiteers have taken advantage of a lax regulatory regime at the detriment of consumers.
Hombo Shuzo Mars has cultivated a cult following among Japanese whiskyphiles. You could say, there’s a flourishing Mars whisky sub-culture. And this didn’t happen overnight – building trust rarely does. They are a part of a storied Japanese industry that has, for the longest time, only highlighted Suntory and Nikka. When these became common yet unreachable, people naturally started looking for alternatives – the next best thing. They found Mars.
The Tsunuki distillery is set to release its first offering – Mars Tsunuki The First. Highly inventive name. Good luck in trying to get one. There are several expressions aged in the Tsunuki warehouse, but these were distilled at Shinsu. A different proposition but would give you a taste of their spirit quality.
The Tsunagu is decent but overpriced at the current market. The Cosmo is, well, cheap but I’d save the money and get a Komagatake release. This seems to be where the quality and price agree. The experience of tasting a great Japanese whisky is like no other. It’s an epiphany of sorts. At least from what I’ve read. Mars seems to be a good place to start and the price of entry is still quite affordable.