The late summer sun blazes off the pagoda roofs as I arrive outside Mars, the distillery which can stake a pretty good claim to be Japan’s least-known single malt producer. Even though the day is bright there’s a crisp edge to the air, an indication that this distillery, nestled tight into mountains that seem covered with crushed green velvet, lies at 800metres in the Japanese Alps, making it the highest in the country.
That accolade doesn’t solve any of the mysteries surrounding Mars. When did it start making whisky?Why did it stop? Why is it called Mars for goodness sake?Thankfully all questions are answered by the ever-smiling MD of parent firm Hombo Shochu, Taniguchi-san and, this being Japan and Japanese whiskies a few more layers of intrigue are added for good measure.
I came to find out about one lost whisky distillery and ended up learning about three, all of which give intriguing flashes of an alternative history of Japanese whisky, a story of missed opportunities and plain bad luck.. and also of hope.
Taniguchi-san, it transpires, is the best person to give the true - and slightly convoluted -history of Mars as he was the distiller here, as well as at the whisky distillery which ran, briefly, in Hombo’s distillery in Kagoshima.
Hombo first took out a licence to distil whisky (in Kagoshima) in 1949, though for 11 years it simply blended malt and grain from existing producers. In 1960, however, it took the plunge into whisky-making with a purpose-built plant in Yamanashi. “The person in charge of this was Kijiro Iwai,” explains Taniguchi-san, going on to reveal the remarkable story of the man who could have been one of the founding fathers of Japanese whisky and who, as Masataka Taketsuru’s original boss, held the notes which the young proto-whisky maker brought back with him from his studies in Scotland.
“When Iwai-san was hired as distilling consultant for Yamanashi he used the Taketsuru approach,” says Taniguchi-san. “It was a heavy, smoky style.”
Iwai’s belated venture into whisky lasted for nine years before the distillery was closed. “It was hard to sell,” says Taniguchi. “These were the days before the whisky boom and we ended up closing it.” Not for the first time, Hombo’s timing was just slightly off.
It wasn’t however the end of the firm’s forays into whisky-making. “By 1978, local [Japanese] whisky became popular, so the firm decided to try again. By that time however, we were making wine at the old Yamanashi distillery so we started to produce whisky at Kagoshima while looking for another dedicated site. Kagoshima was the first Mars distillery.”
It seems an appropriate time to ask about the bizarre name. He laughs. “We had a shochu brand called Star Treasury and we asked consumers to think of another name for a new brand. Someone suggested Mars. It stuck.”
He pulls out images of the Kagoshima stills, minuscule copper pots. “Ah yes,” he guffaws, “We had Japan’s micro-distillery! It was quite unusual. We had to empty the mashtun by hand, the washbacks were glass-lined.” And the whisky? “That was Iwai-style as well, heavy and very smoky.”
Taniguchi made whisky at Mars1 until 1984 when that distillery closed and whisky production was switched to the new Shinshyu-based Mars 2. At that point Kagoshima reverted to shochu production. And what happened to the Kagoshima-distilled whisky? “It’s all gone now. We vatted the last five casks together and sold it as ‘Malt of Kagoshima’.”
The new Mars distillery was to represent a change of approach. The site had been carefully chosen because of its altitude, to encourage slow, gentle maturation and availability of pure granite filtered soft water. The style had changed as well. Rather than persevering with heavy peaty single malt, the new Mars was to make a style which suited the lighter Japanese palate of the 1980s. “We had a new distillery, so we wanted to make a new whisky.”
Tasting it now shows Mars to be the sweetest of the Japanese single malts but this isn’t the light ethereal style of Gotemba, Mars has a juicy weight to it allowing the whisky to rest in the middle of the tongue. Honeyed, but with definite presence.
Once again though, the firm’s timing was off. 1984 can now be seen as the peak of the whisky boom and the distillery only ran for a decade before the crash brought about by the financial crisis decimated whisky production across the country. Brandy was run through the stills until 2002, but the Mars stock has slowly been eked out, some vatted together and stored in glass lined tanks while the 100 remaining single casks are being dripped out onto the market.
It’s a sad tale and I wonder, against hope really, if there would be any possibility that the new whisky boom might see Mars restarting again. Third time lucky and all that. Taniguchi beams, he slaps his knees. “Yes! he almost shouts. “We’re starting up again next February!” What I had thought of as being a walk through a mausoleum is now a tour around a reborn distillery.
“The total whisky market has fallen to about a fifth of what it was at its peak,” he explains, “but we can see that it hit the bottom two years ago and that there’s definite upward movement once more. We’re planning to distil 400,000 litres next year, less than half of what we were doing.”
And is this a chance to try something new? “Yes. The plans are to make light and heavy peated styles, but also to use both distillers and brewer’s yeast. We haven’t used brewer’s before, but I’m looking forward to trying it out.” (The fact that there is a microbrewery, Minami-shinshyu, on site will surely help with that.) “We also have to keep heavy peat in memory of Iwai-san.”
I look at him in his suit. “Yes. Me. There’s only one person in the company who knows what it was like to make whisky here and that’s me! I’m a bit nervous starting distilling again when I’m 55.” His ear to ear grin says otherwise. Clearly he cannot wait to get his distillery operational once more.
The barley will be Scottish malted, and mashed in a neat little 1ton mashtun (all the original equipment is being refurbished). Some of the wort will then be diverted to a starter tank where it will be mixed with the yeast (a similar technique to that at Karuizawa) before the mixture is put with the remaining wort into three of the five washbacks. It will stay in there for a minimum of three days “we’re expecting the brewer’s yeast to take longer” before the wash still is charged.
The stillhouse is tiny, with deep bottomed, slightly square-edged stills crammed into one corner. The wash still runs into a condenser, but the spirit still, slightly smaller, has a worm tub.
It’s an unusual set-up. “It’s Iwai’s way of distilling,” says Taniguchi.
The warehouse, with the remaining stocks of old Mars will soon be filled with new casks, mainly 450litre new American oak, with some sherry butts, while the five mizunara casks currently sitting (full) on the upper tier may just have sufficient life in them to offer Taniguchi another facet to play with. We step back into the dazzling sunshine. No wonder the pagodas seem to blaze with life. There is life on Mars after all.
AO 1992 Cask 1144, 46%
Nose: Very clean and sweet, with maple syrup, coconut and a touch of ginseng. With water more pine sap and sawn wood.
Palate: Nutty/toasty start then very soft mid palate with honeyed fruits and a gentle sticky flow. Thick and tongue coating.
Finish: Fades a little quickly. Just beginning to show its age.
AO 1989 Cask 617, 61%
Nose: Finer and slightly drier with similar honeyed notes to the 1992, but the fruit is slightly fresher and there’s an interesting orange peel note. Light chocolate. Less wood dominated.
Palate: Lots of sweet spice. Cherry, mango, vanilla. Clean and long.
Finish: Fades gently but better length and complexity. More subtle than the upfront 1992 but for me more complex.
AO 1991 Cask 1110, 58%
Nose: Similar to the lush 1992 but with some wood bark. Honey and soft leather/wax. With water a little hazelnut and even after this time a light green note. Fresh still.
Palate: Lightly herbal (lemon balm), clean and sweet. That silky mid-palate once more mixed with juicy fruits.
Finish: Lightly peppery. If this was Scotch it’d be Aberfeldy.
1988 Cask 509, 58% Sherry
Nose: Elegant, gentle, rich. Sweet amontillado, light touch of sultana and a little macadamia and green almond.
Palate: Ripe, complex sherry notes with a hint of smoke in the middle. Tightens its grip slightly with water, but there’s a big sweet centre which resists the tannin.
Finish: Balanced and relatively long. Shows that Mars can cope with sherry.
AO 1985 Cask 324, 58%
Nose: Lots of toffee apple, caramel/creme brulee. Nougat, ferns. The most robust of the trio. Little hint of turmeric.
Palate: Grippy, with coconut then the ripe sweet fruits come through. Intense and slightly over-wooded but there’s a willingness to please about these whiskies which wins you over.
The missing link
The origins of Japanese whisky have taken on the qualities of a myth: the quest of Masataka Taketsuru which took him to Scotland, his acquisition of knowledge, and a bride, his return to Japan and fortuitous meeting with Shinjiro Torii. What has never quite been fully answered however is why, when he returned to Japan, did he not start making whisky for Settsu Shozu, the firm which had sent him? What happened to change Settsu’s boss Kihei Abe’s mind?
The answer lies within the story of Taketsuru’s immediate boss, Kijiro Iwai. He too was a scientist and engineer who had and developed a device called the fusel separator. When Taketsuru returned to Japan he reported immediately to Iwai and presented him with his comprehensive notes –information which Iwai would retain until he started distilling in Yamanashi.
Why though didn’t Iwai and Taketsuru act immediately on the information? According to those who talked to Iwai when he was working at Yamanashi it was another example of bad timing. Taketsuru returned during the start of the economic depression and Settsu Shozu was in financial trouble. So serious was the situation that the bank had a representative on the board. It was he who turned down the plans to start whisky distilling. At that point, Taketsuru left and the rest... is history.
Iwai however held on to Taketsuru’s notes –according to Taniguchi-san at Hombo they were finally copied and presented to Nikka in 1965 –and passed them on to his son-in-law, who happened to be the second president of Hombo. He would have to wait until 1960, 40 years after being given the information, to finally put into practise what his employee had presented him with, and did so to the letter.
It’s one of those tales that leaves you with a headful of “what ifs?” What if that banker hadn’t been on the board? Would Taketsuru and Iwai be hailed as the founders of Japanese whisky? Would Settsu have become the equivalent of Suntory? Would Nikka even exist? On such decisions the whole world spins.