Whiskey Review: Mars Iwai Whisky

Most whiskey in the world has a single root: Scotland. Both America and Japan were inoculated directly from that source, with Scottish immigrants bringing their expertise to these newer whiskey regions. But where Japan perfected the Scottish tradition, America (in typical fashion) hot-rodded it and added some twists. Now that Japan is a major player in the global whiskey market, though, it seems like they are also trying to branch out and test some of those improvements that the U.S. has been working on.

History

The Hombo Shuzo distillery company was founded in 1872 in Kagoshima, Kyushu. They originally distilled shochu, a traditional Japanese distilled spirit dating to the mid-16th century, which is similar to vodka and uses potato paste as its base before being distilled multiple times.

Suntory was the first to successfully apply the Scottish methods in the Japanese market, and several of the major Japanese whiskey brands can trace their roots back to it. In the 1930’s, Masataka Taketsuru took experience learned in Scotland from whiskey masters to help Suntory to develop their local Japanese whiskey production. Taketsuru would eventually end his contract with Suntory and found the competing Nikka distillery, and similarly, his mentor Kiichiro Iwai took some of those same designs and concepts to Hombo Shuzo and started whiskey production there in 1949.

Eventually, Hombo Shuzo would move whiskey distilling to a new location and founded the Shinshu Mars distillery in 1985. What sets this distillery apart from the others is that this is the highest distillery in the country of Japan, located in a small village in Nagano at an elevation of about 800 meters (2,600 feet). The designs for the copper pot stills used at the facility come straight from the notes of Masataka Taketsuru.

The Shinshu Mars distillery produced a combination of spirits depending on the season, specifically doing runs of whiskey in the winter and switching to brandy and other spirits in the summer months, until it was mothballed in 1992 due to a sluggish demand for their products. However, that all changed in 2011 when market demand for Japanese whiskey significantly increased and the plant returned to full production.

Product

This particular spirit is a bit of an odd duck when it comes to the production process of Japanese whiskey. Typically, the Japanese style takes after the Scottish tradition: heavily relying on malted barley and blending the results together. For their Iwai product, though, Mars wanted to take some concepts from American bourbon and see how they contributed to the Japanese style of whiskey.

Mars Iwai starts with a blend of about 75% corn and 15% malted barley – the correct proportions to be called a “bourbon” back in the States. Once distilled, the whiskey is aged in previously used bourbon barrels (so, charred American oak barrels which had been filled with bourbon) for an undisclosed period of time.

Packaging

In general, the bottle is simple-yet-tasteful. The bottle itself is roughly the shape of a traditional whiskey bottle with a round body, gentle shoulder, and slightly longer neck… but there are some differences. Both the base and the shoulder are slightly flared, giving the body a thinner looking waist. There’s also some pattern work embossed into the glass which adds some interesting shapes and colors to the bottle.

Similarly, the label is relatively plain. As always, I’m going to complain a little bit that it takes up far too much of the bottle and prevents the whiskey within from shining through as clearly as you’d like. But, to be fair, there’s still an acceptable amount of room above and below, so the whiskey isn’t entirely obscured. Printed on the label are a stylized Japanese characters and the brand information, and that’s all you really need.

Neat

Taking a whiff of the whiskey, I can definitely see the bourbon aspects coming through. Not only is it a much darker and richer color than most of the other Japanese whiskey I’ve had, but there’s also a dark toffee flavor coming off the glass as well. It’s mixed together with some dark cherries and charred oak for an appealing (if a touch rich) aroma.

The flavor isn’t what I was expecting at all, though. Up front, there’s a buttery sweet flavor that’s surprisingly light, with some floral aspects, but that is quickly joined by a hint of the more traditional bourbon flavors of caramel and vanilla. Those flavors don’t last unfortunately, and the last thing I’m left with is primarily just candy corn. It’s not offensive… but it’s not quite the exciting aftertaste I was expecting. Definitely more bland and mellow than I would have liked.

On Ice

With the addition of some ice, the flavors that made this whiskey interesting are almost completely wiped out. At this point, it’s pretty much just that candy corn flavor remaining, which (as we know from Lewis Black) is the worst of all possible Halloween candy.

While there was something interesting about the neat version of this whiskey, on the rocks this is tasteless and (at best) reminiscent of the blandest Halloween candy.

Overall Rating

I liked where they were going with this whiskey. It’s a solid concept that should work in theory… but in the end, something about the execution just isn’t right. Scotch has been “finished” in bourbon barrels for decades now, there’s no reason why a Japanese-made whiskey (basically a first cousin of Scotch) can’t do the came thing. I feel like the culprit here is the underlying spirit just not pulling its weight, and the extra strength bourbon barrels might have been an attempt to finish that spirit into something passable. But they just didn’t hit the mark.

Mars Iwai Whisky
Produced By: Mars
Owned By: Hombo Shuzo Co., Ltd.
Production Location: Japan
Classification: Blended Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $33.49 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:

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Overall Rating: 2/5
Points for creativity, but not enough to overcome the below average experience.

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