...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Shinshu Mars 3 year old 2013 Tsunuki Aging, cask 5108

The Mission: Mars whiskies thus far:

Tsunuki distillery, opened by Hombo Spirits in 2016, was built at sea level on the Kagoshima coast, far from its sibling distillery, Shinshu, up in the Japanese Alps. Hombo established some warehouse space near Tsunuki before the distillery was complete, and has been maturing some casks there.

More on this in the next post. Right now lemme see how this 3 year old — distilled at Shinshu — fares after spending its life near the sea, as opposed to on the mountaintop.

Brand: Mars
Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Distillation Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Maturation Region: Japan, Kagoshima Prefecture
Age: 3 years (September 2013 - February 2017)
Maturation: ex-bourbon barrel
Peat level: ???
Cask #: 5108
Bottles: 210
Bottled for: Yamakataya
Alcohol by Volume: 58%
(from a purchased sample)

Its color is light gold, though it's darker than the previous 3yos I reviewed. The nose frames everything with light sugary peat. Apple-y calvados, lychee gummy candy, vanilla, soil and brine sit in the middle. The palate is HAWT. Jeez. It's fruity, though. Sweet white fruits and very tart berries. Puckeringly tart. Ocean water (don't drink ocean water, people) and cinnamon. More salt than peat, really. Lots of ethyl heat in the finish, as well. It's mostly salt, bitterness and char.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
Ah, the nose is very pretty, all fruits and flowers. Bananas, plums and apples. The palate is much more approachable at this strength. Pepper, salt and sugar. Pears and vanilla. Donut glaze. Not much peat. Some of the pears remain in the warm, peppery, sweet finish.

I'm sensing a theme here. Three consecutive 3 year old peated whiskies that all smell and taste like 3 year old peated whiskies, no matter where they've matured. This is the hottest of the three, but once diluted down to 46%abv, it's the best of the trio. While the nose has its delights, the whisky's palate (like the previous two) is limited by its youth. As I've said before, I'd be interested in tasting this stuff when it hits eight years old. At that point, I wouldn't doubt if it gives Hakushu a run for its money. Speaking of money, this thing is priced all over the map (as it were).

Availability - Japan, Europe and USA
Pricing - Japan: around $80 if you can find it; Europe: $200ish; USA: $200-$250
Rating - 81 (with water only)

Friday, March 16, 2018

Shinshu Mars 3 year old 2013 Blackadder, cask 1647

The Mission: Mars whiskies thus far:

Like yesterday's whisky, this is a peated three year old Martian. I don't know which of Shinshu's three peated distillates were used here, but since it's supposed to be noticeably peaty, I'd say it's either the 20ppm or 50ppm spirit.

This time it's not an official bottling, but rather one from the independent company, Blackadder. Though, curiously, the official bottle shape was used.

The cask description makes me smile: "first refill bourbon barrel". So.....is it a second fill? On a side note, "first fill" is a misleading term because technically a "first fill" ex-bourbon barrel's real first fill is bourbon, not single malt. A true "first fill" would be a virgin oak cask, meanwhile a virgin oak cask is no longer "virginal" once it's been filled. And you have now wasted five seconds of your life reading this paragraph.


Brand: Mars
Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Independent bottler: Blackadder
Age: 3 years (May 2013 - September 2016)
Maturation: "first refill bourbon barrel"
Peat level: either 20ppm or 50ppm
Cask #: 1647
Bottles: 239
Alcohol by Volume: 61%

Oooh, there's fruit in the nose. I mean, it's subtle but there be peaches and pineapple here. There's also very polite peat and concrete. Sugar cookies and cinnamon candy. And the ocean/beach note found in many of these Martians. The palate has peppery peat, dried thyme, charred beef, berry syrup, brown sugar and little bit of heat. There's sweet peat, salt, pepper and heat in the finish.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
Twix bars and cinnamon candy on the nose. Ocean. The peat has gotten quieter but ashier. Not much happening in the palate. Peppercorns and fresh ginger. Tart lemons and mild peat. Peat, ginger and pepper in the finish.

The nose is a lot of fun but the palate is a snooze. There are no outright flaws here, unless bottling a whisky before it's ready equates to a flaw. The heat is calmer than I expected from a 3yo 61% whisky, and, again, the sniffer's fruit is much appreciated. I'm leaning towards this being a second fill barrel holding the 20ppm spirit.

Next week, the tour takes another turn, thank goodness. No the whiskies don't get older, but they do get different. As for this whisky:

Availability - ???
Pricing - ???
Rating - 78 (neat)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Shinshu Mars Komagatake 2012 "Super Heavy Peated", cask 1492

The Mission: Mars whiskies thus far:
--Shinshu Komagatake Nature of Shinshu - Kohiganzakura (Wednesday)
--Shinshu Komagatake 2012 "Super Heavy Peated", cask 1492 (today)

Now we're entering Shinshu distillery's current whisky era. So that means things are going to get quite young and probably quite peaty. Komagatake Kohiganzakura delivered more than a hint of youthful stuff yesterday, but it wasn't slathered with peat pancake makeup, which masks a whisky's flaws with a stratum of phenolic cover.

But, enough flirting. As Greta Garbo said, "Gimme a whisky."


Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Age: 3 years (2012-2015)
Maturation: probably American oak
Peat level: either the 20ppm or 50ppm spirit, though probably the latter
Cask #: 1492
Bottled for: Isetan
Alcohol by Volume: 58%
(from a purchased sample)

It has a very pale color. The nose leads with clean ocean-y peat, flower blossoms and cinnamon candy. Simple syrup. A whiff of hot asphalt. Green veg, think arugula and seaweed. Yes, the palate's peat is heavy (ashy and sooty), but it's also sweet. Mild tingly alcohol heat. Acidic citrus, and no oak to be found. The still tingly finish has the oceanic peat smoke with a small hit of bitterness and a bigger acidic note.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
The nose is cleaner, politer. Lots of florals. Menthol, burnt marshmallows and chalk dust. A hint of balsamic vinegar. Tangy and smoky peat in the palate. The bitterness and sweetness have become gentler, though there is a new edgier metallic side. It finishes tangy and sweet. Smoke and metal.

This does a good job imitating peated Scotch, while also including its own pretty floral notes. It's a fine work in progress, and probably offers a good look at Shinshu's heavily peated new make. And I do appreciate the absence of woodwork. I can't wait to see what it would be like at around 8 years. But with this 3yo selling for $500 (yup), I doubt most of us will ever find out what its older brethren will taste like.

Availability - Secondary market and a few retailers in Europe and Asia
Pricing - over $500. Because.
Rating - 80

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Shinshu Mars Komagatake Kohiganzakura

The Mission: Mars whiskies thus far:
--Shinshu Mars Komagatake Nature of Shinshu - Kohiganzakura (today)

The tour of Mars continues...

The first three whiskies (1986, 1992 and 1989) from this set of reviews were distilled during Shinshu's first whisky distillation era which began in 1985 and ended in 1992. The pot stills then sat silent until 2011, and have been running ever since.

Today's whisky is from the recent "Nature of Shinshu" series, which combines casks from this new period with casks from the old era. Sort of a Mars Uigeadail thing.

Specifics and guesses

Additional specifics of the (so far) three "Nature of Shinshu" batches are a bit confusing since different retailer sites say different things, and sometimes even jumbling the batch names (Kohiganzakura, Rindo and Shinanotanpopo). At least one of the batches has a portion of wine cask whisky and at least one has some lightly peated stuff in the mix. Some might have sherry casks, all probably have American oak casks.

Details about the cask ages from these two periods are also scrambled. But at least some data are known. This batch, Kohiganzakura, was bottled in 2016. The first era ended in 1992. So the old casks aren't younger than 23-ish years unless they were put into steel or glass before 2016, nor are they older than 31 years. The current distillation period began in February 2011, so the newer whisky element is between 3 and 5 years old.

The young stuff likely makes up the vast majority of the mix. But this makes for a nice transition as I progress toward the brand's current single malts.

lovely Sakura label
by Yoko Nomura
photo source
Brand: Mars
Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Age: young stuff (maybe 3-5 yrs) + old stuff (maybe 23-31 yrs)
Maturation: ???
Bottles: 5275
Alcohol by Volume: 52%
(from a purchased sample)

Its color is light gold.

Its nose is the maltiest of the group thus far. There are also flower blossoms, lemon zest and pie crust. Canned peaches and pears. Also a nice ripple of seaweed underneath. With a few drops of water it gets maltier. Lemon cake, orange marmalade and cinnamon bread.

The palate has gentle aquatic peat. Malt, apples, pears, a hint of caramel candy. Ginger beer and root beer. It's mildly sweet. Spirity, but not rough. Kinda pretty. With a few drops of water it gets bitterer, rougher, reading very young. There are some quiet florals and green apples in there.

It finishes warm, lightly sweet and tangy. Salty. Flower blossoms and caramel. With a few drops of water it gets rawer, like the palate. Maybe some citrus and vanilla.

Well, that was curious. Mars may have found the money spot at 52%abv. The nose is very pleasant throughout, but the palate is MUCH better without water. Yet, even at "MUCH better" it shows no sign of the older casks. It's young whisky. That's not a crime, but this whisky does cost three figures, and it could really use some more balance or calming from the well-matured element.

Overall, I like it. Heck, I think I prefer it over yesterday's 20yo. This is something I'd buy, but at half (or a third) of its current price. (FWIW, I enjoyed another Komagatake much more when I tried it last June (thanks to Will at Buffalo Tap in Ikebukuro).)

Availability - Europe and American specialty retailers
Pricing - US: $150-$180, Europe: $130-$160
Rating - 83 (neat only)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Shinshu Mars 20 year old 1989 single cask 618

Here's the list of the Mission: Mars whiskies thus far:
--Shinshu 12 year old 1986, cask 452 (last Tuesday)
--Shinshu 12 year old 1992, cask 1125 (yesterday)
--Shinshu 20 year old 1989, cask 618 (today!)

The first two were sherry cask single malts reduced to 43%abv. Today's whisky was bottled at 58%abv. The internets say it was from an American white oak cask, and now that I have tasted the whisky I can confirm it is INDUBITABLY from an American white oak cask. But how big was that cask?

A weird cask

American oak casks tend to be bourbon barrels (approximately 180 to 200 litres) or hogsheads (250 litres). There are plenty of American oak sherry butts out there (~500 litres), but bottlers tend to brag about the "sherry" part as they puff up the price. But there's no reference of this being a sherry butt, and there ain't no sherry action in this whisky.

I note all this because 378 bottles multiplied by 720mL (bottle volume) equals more fluid than a hogshead can hold. Even if it were a random ~275L hogshead, that would mean no whisky evaporated over the 20 years of maturation.

That leaves three possibilities for this strange single cask:
1.) The cask was a bizarre size.
2.) The cask was a butt that was never seasoned with sherry.
3.) It was a hogshead, and a lot of water was added to a very high ABV whisky. Thus it's not cask strength.

So.......what is it?

If it were option 3, and there was ZERO evaporation, then the whisky was 63.1%abv at full strength. But because chemistry is real, evaporation did occur during those twenty years. If they somehow kept liquid evaporation as low as 1%/year, then the whisky was 77.2% at cask strength!

So maybe it's option 2? That seems difficult to believe because this whisky is outrageously oaky, as if it were from a tiny cask, not like it was from a huge vessel.

Then option 1? I have no idea.

Please share your theories in the comment section below.

Brand: Mars
Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Age: 20 years (April 1989 to April 2009)
Maturation: American white oak
Cask #: 618
Bottles: 378
Alcohol by Volume: 58%
(from a purchased sample)

Its color is the darkest of all my Mars samples.

The nose leads with dusty basement and eucalyptus. Cherry candy and cherry syrup. Honey. Cinnamon candies and mint candies. A whisper of wood smoke.

The palate holds lots of sticky sweetness. Cinnamon candy, cherry lollipops and bubblegum. Salty corn chips, sawdust and that hint of wood smoke.

The sweet finish is full of bubblegum and oaky vanilla. Plenty of heat and tongue-drying tannins.

DILUTED TO ~43%abv
The nose is a bowl full of hard candies. Also vanilla and toffee. Freshly split wood. Vanilla. A hint of salty ocean air. A little bit of new make. And vanilla.

The bubblegum and lollipop notes have receded in the palate. Now there's super-tart citrus and lots of pepper. Brown sugar and burnt anise. The bitter oak feels almost smoky. And then there's the vanilla.

The finish remains quite sweet and tannic. Vanilla, bubblegum, black pepper and tart citrus

It feels like an American single malt that was Kentuckified (matured in Kentucky; yes, Kentuckified Whisky) for 8-10 years, such is the hefty oak influence. While the previous two (diluted) sherry casks showed much maturity in a short time period, this mystery cask shows much oak, period.

It's not a bad whisky. In fact it should appeal to American whisky enthusiasts. But it's too oaky for me to recommend to those who desire whisky in their whisky. I mean, I'd happily consume it again, and further tinker with dilution. But this damn thing sold for $1050 last month. WTF? No, seriously. WTF.

Availability - Secondary market
Pricing - really friggin' high
Rating - 82

Monday, March 12, 2018

Shinshu Mars 12 year old 1992 single cask 1124

Okay, I'm back. I think.

Just to protect my innards, I'm consuming the 1992 (bottled at 43%abv) before the 1989 (a cask strength 58%abv). This works nicely because the 1992 has the same age, cask type and ABV as last Tuesday's 1986 single cask.

Though it was bottled exclusively for the Shinanoya shops, this release represents only half of the cask's contents. The other half was bottled for Espoa, at the same age and strength. (Curiously, the whiskybase grades for these two are quite different: see here and here.)

If you're in Tokyo, I recommend stopping by one of the Shinanoya stores. Their prices can be a bit high sometimes, but there's usually an impressive selection of whiskies from both Asian and European indie bottlers. As for Shinanoya's recent exclusive single casks, I've had only one but it was a whisky that wove tales that I'm not sure how to tell.

Because the 12yo Shinshu sherry cask from last Tuesday was so excellent, my expectations are up for this Martian.


Brand: Mars
Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Age: 12 years (1992-2004)
Maturation: Spanish oak sherry butt
Cask #: 1124
Bottled for: Shinanoya
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
(from a purchased sample)

Its color is a deeper gold than the '86, but not nearly as dark as the above picture illustrates.

The nose is full of lovely almond things (cookies, extract, marzipan, etc.). There are also notes of orange oil, Carpano Antica and wet sand. My groovy Armagnac cherries (which I need to make again). Soft grape and raisin notes. A hint of milk chocolate.

The palate has a gorgeous herbal bitterness. Dates, figs and a lot of funky honey. Campari, lemon peel and a hint of dunnage. The whole thing has a cask strength intensity.

It finishes earthy and herbal, with not much sweetness. Dried fruit essences. Hints of dunnage and citrus peels.

While this whisky's charms are mostly due its cask, that was one heck of a cask. It's like Kavalan's sherry cask whiskies, but better, because Kavalan doesn't slug like this at 43%abv. In fact, it's tough to find any sherried whiskies at 12yo/43%abv with the richness of these first two Shinshus. How on Earth did they do this?

Availability - Secondary market, if you're lucky
Pricing - sold for £180 and £330 at auctions in the past twelve months, so who knows
Rating - 88

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Shinshu Mars 12 year old 1986 single cask 452

My daughter's preschool class is learning how to share, which is GREAT now that they've given me their stomach virus. Thanks, kids!

Mathilda's ability to pull off the boot-and-rally is truly admirable. I, on the other hand, have seemed to misplace the past 24 hours, and a considerable amount of bodily fluid along with it.

Luckily, all the tasting notes below were typed two days ago (or was it three?). And there's a possibility that the Mars sequence will now last three weeks rather than two. Yay!

Speaking of which, the first Shinshu Mars whisky from my Mission: Mars series is the earliest of the bunch, a single sherry cask from 1986. It was diluted to 43%abv. Will that be an issue?

photo source

Brand: Mars
Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Age: 12 years (December 12, 1986 - ???)
Maturation: ex-sherry cask
Cask #: 452
Bottled for: Espoa
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
(from a purchased sample)

Its color is light gold.

The nose opens gradually. It starts off with pipe tobacco and hot cocoa. Then there's plums, jelly rings and dried apricots. Then damp forest and lime zest. With 30+ minutes in the glass it gets more candied: grape gumdrops, orange slices and candied ginger. An ocean/briny note lingers throughout.

The palate starts off salty and savory, but not meaty. More like umeboshi. It's also a bit earthy. Some bitter chocolate and dried berries. Hints of oak spice, mint leaves and cabernet sauvignon. The mouthfeel is enormous for its ABV.

The finish has a good length to it. Tart and tangy citrus. Sea salt and mint leaves. Fresh tobacco. Blackberry syrup. Oolong tea.

I'm not sure what's more remarkable, the nose's depth or the palate's expanse. Would anyone would guess this was a 43%abv 12 year old if it were tasted blindly? My expectations were foolishly set low for this magical wee thing. The rest of these whiskies have their work cut out for 'em.

Availability - Secondary market, if you're lucky
Pricing - sold for £195 at auction last year, though whiskybase estimates a higher value
Rating - 90