While it’s lesser known than fellow Japanese distilleries Suntory and Nikka, Mars claims a distilling history that dates back to 1909, though it only began producing whisky in 1949. Mars now operates two distilleries. Shinshu, the main distillery, is tucked away at 2,625 feet in the Nagano Alps and is Japan’s highest whisky distillery. Tsunuki is based in Kagoshima on Kyushu island, located near the southwest tip of Japan. A third site, Yakushima, is currently used for aging barrels but will be used as a location for future production.
Mars recently released three new whiskies, each of which we review here.
Mars Whisky Iwai 45 – Named for Kiichiro Iwai (ee-why), a key advisor that got Mars into whisky distilling. This is a blend of 30% malt from Shinshu and 70% grain whisky (purportedly heavy on corn) from elsewhere, at least some of apparently sourced. Surprisingly fruity and floral, this is punchy stuff with complex aromas of citrus peel, maple syrup, canned pears, and a moderated wood character. The palate folds in more flowery notes, a mix of potpourri and fresh cedar, with a honeyed sweetness and a buttery popcorn character evident on the finish. Amazing depth and lots of fun, especially at this price. 90 proof. A- / $35 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
Mars Whisky Komagatake 2020 – For 2020, this annual release is a single malt aged for at least three years in sherry casks and American white oak barrels. Woody and austere, the cereal is a bit overbearing on the nose, and alongside a fairly boozy aromatic profile, things come across as a bit rustic. The palate finds its fruity footing and some nutty elements — there’s no shortage of sherry on this one, with solid notes of spiced citrus throughout — but it’s all tempered a bit by the woody barrel influence. Sharp and pungent at full strength, water helps to temper the beast, coaxing out a gentle chocolate and maple note on the finish. 100 proof. B+ / $169
Mars Whisky Tsunuki the First – The inaugural release from Mars’ southern distillery is also a three year old single malt aged in bourbon barrels and sherry casks. While the nose doesn’t immediately connote sweetness, connoting rather a clearer cereal note and its considerable heat, the whisky quickly shows off its sugary core once you take that first sip. You can immediately taste the way the lower altitude comes into play here, adding some saline into a palate that quickly focuses on more dessert-like elements of vanilla, spiced chai, and sugar syrup. Again there’s a maple note on the finish, which seems to be part of the house style at Mars. Water, and this whisky can stand a lot of it, brings things into clearer focus, although it never really strays from its singular mission. The price, however, is asking a lot. 118 proof. B+ / $220