Tucked in the foothills of the picturesque Japanese Alps in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture is Mars Shinshu distillery, one of the two whisky-producing facilities of Hombo Shuzo.
You may not have heard of Mars Whisky despite the meteoric rise in the popularity of Japanese whisky in the past decade. Mars Whisky may be Japan’s third oldest whisky maker, but it’s mostly overshadowed by its far larger peers, Suntory and Nikka, largely because most of its production is geared towards the domestic market. In fact, it was only earlier this year that Mars Whisky launched its Iwai range of blended whiskies here in Singapore.
Mars Whisky is produced by Hombo Shuzo, which was founded in Yamanashi Prefecture by Kiichiro Iwai in 1960 to make wine and whisky. Due to explosive growth the distilling operation was moved in 1985 to a new location at the foot of Mt. Komagatake in Nagano Prefecture. This would be the Mars Shinshu distillery – and thanks to its mountain location – it’s also Japan’s highest.
Unlike many other distilleries in Japan or around the world, Mar’s Shinshu distillery is a fully-operational facility that just happens to have a tasting room, so don’t expect too much in terms of a full distillery tour and whisky museum experience like you would at Nikka’s Yoichi distillery on Hokkaido, or even Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery on the outskirts of Osaka. For that you’ll have to visit Mars Shishu’s sister distillery of Tsunuki at Kagoshima.
Still the Mars Shinshu tasting room is a worthy stopover if you’re passing through Komagane in Nagano on the way for some skiing on Mt. Komagatake. You’ll get to taste its core Mars Iwai and Mars Maltage range of whiskies, but also some limited edition expressions like its Mars “The Lucky Cat” series of whiskies named for different cats (Hombo Shuzo’s former owner had a thing for felines).
Another good reason to visit Mars Shinshu is that it’s invested in and partnered with Minami Shinshu brewery, Nagano’s first craft brewery, and the latter has a brewing facility on site as well. Hence you’ll also be able to sample a range of locally made craft beer alongside whisky tasters in the tasting room here.