Shinshu/Hombo Mars. The sleeping giant in Japanese Whisky.
Shinshu/Hombo Mars. This was a very interesting visit. Shinshu is the distillery name, the main product line is named Mars and the owner is Hombo Breweries just so we can get all of the titles straight. Even with all of these names, you may not have heard of them and that’s expected. They began in 1985 after a few previous failed attempts of producing whisky that the Japanese people liked. The head of the project was Iwai Kiichiro, who actually used to work with the founder of the Nikka whisky brand Takestsuru. I took a bus 4 hours each way to get to the distillery. I would not recommend this trip to any faint of heart whisky lovers, but if you do visit you can boast to your friends back in the States who won’t be able to find it. When you arrive, you realize very quickly how rural the location is. English will not be spoken or understood here. After a few Google Translate sessions I was able to walk around the facility by myself- no guide! Little did they know this was dangerous. I knew what I wanted to see and what I was looking for. I wandered into places I was clearly not supposed to be and was escorted out many times. You can find a few of their brands in retail locations around Japan but as far as I know these aren’t being distributed in the States. A few people have said they can find the IWAI blends in Europe and the USA. If you know any North American retail locations, please let me know!
They of course produce whisky here, but they also make other products such as liqueur’s and fortified wine products. They also have grain whiskies, but I didn’t see any sort of column tower or any part of the building that had that needed height. I’m assuming they may buy some of their grain whisky in for blending. I did see Crisp Malting malt bags, so we can assume a majority of their malt is being brought in. The core, mainstream brands are IWAI Tradition (a blended whisky), Cosmo Mars Maltage (a blended malt), and Twin Alps (a blended whisky). These all have a broad range of grains and consist of all different cask types. When I was in the warehouse I saw everything from ex-bourbon Rebel Yell barrels, port and Madeira casks.
I was able to get my first look at production equipment in the mash tun room. There was one stainless steel mash tun that held just about 9,000 liters. It was an interesting shape. The washbacks were all stainless steel and I saw seven of them. I normally wouldn’t mention this because distilleries are production areas, but the facility was quite dirty. Especially the washbacks, which is expected from the wash and wort. You then move on to their still room where new make was running through the spirit safe. That is one thing I have noticed while traveling to distilleries in Japan. The spirit safes are not nearly as historical and impressive as the Scottish ones. They are more industrial and definitely don’t have locks on them since I most distillers in Japan taste new make right out of the safe. They had one spirit and one wash still. No bulge on either one and had a very steep and skinny lyne arm. The stills weren’t as large as I expected. They also have a bottling line on site.
This visit left a lot to be desired, but the distillery can’t really be faulted for this. As they grow, English speaking staff may be needed, but at this point only Japanese are visiting and drinking this dram. Although, my mischievous side was intrigued by being able to walk around wherever I wanted and only getting yelled at a few times, so I did a bit more research on their brands. Below are the bottlings I tried and info on a few others from their core line.
IWAI Tradition Blended Whisky ( IWAI comes from the head of the distillery Iwai Kiichiro )
Holly’s Tasting Note..
Nose: Light apples, green tea, vanilla, sweet grain, sourdough bread, tropical starbursts.
Palate: Floral, honeysuckle, toffee crunch, slight oily finish with some oak and pepper.
I was told that this blend is 75% malt and 25% corn. Not a bad dram. There are a few different versions of the IWAI brand.
Mars Maltage Cosmo NAS- Blended Malt
Holly’s Tasting Note..
Nose: Yeasty, malt, raisins and coco.
Palate: Wood, apricots, slight earthy sense, cereal and caramel.
This apparently has a mix of malts from the Hombo Mars facility and Scottish distilleries. If you know which Scottish distilleries, let me know. This was an interesting dram. Cosmo is just sold in Japan right now and later on in 2017 it will move into Europe.
Other interesting brands that they have are “Lucky Cat”. This is apparently named after the distillery owner’s favorite cat. The label is really quite funny and would be great to add to a collection. The Twin Alps pictured above is also a blended whisky. They are also becoming quite well known for their Komagatake releases. These are typically special editions and limited releases. Overall, the Cosmo isn’t bad and everything I saw was reasonably priced. It will be interesting to see how they choose to grow and develop not only their brands, but their distillery visitor center.