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3 overlooked distilleries giving big names a run for their money

Big-name labels aren't the only ones producing a great dram.

  • Mars Shinshu Distillery

    MARS SHINSHU DISTILLERY

    Mention the origin of Japanese whisky and you'd hear the name Kiichiro Iwai. One of Japan's whisky pioneers, we have him to thank for Masataka Taketsuru, who started Yamazaki Distillery and Nikka Whisky. It was he who sent Taketsuru on the momentous journey to Scotland, after all.

    But that's not his only claim to fame. Iwai helped establish Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd's Mars Shinshu Distillery in 1960, designing copper pot stills based on Taketsuru's notes from Scotland. The design continues to be used today.

    The popularity of its whisky goes beyond its rich history. Its location in the central Japanese Alps, at the base of Mount Komagatake, gives it unadulterated access to melted snow that's naturally filtered by granite. The frigid temperatures at 798 metres above sea level (as low as -15°C in winter) also greatly influence the maturation process.

    Distillery manager Koki Takehira now helms the distillery, following its reopening in 2011. Awards have started piling up. The Mars Maltage 3+25, 28 Years Old was named the world's best blended malt whisky by 2013's World Whiskies Award.

    Now, the distillery has expanded. November 2016 saw the launch of Mars Tsunuki Distillery for producing richer, heavier malts with hints of salt to create new blends. They also own three aging warehouses in Shinshu, Tsunuki and Yakushima, where blends will spend time in one or more.

    IWAI TRADITION

    Named after Kiichiro Iwai, Iwai Tradition is a malt-driven blend bringing the pioneer's vision to the 21st century. It's aged in a combination of bourbon, sherry and wine casks, bringing layers of caramel, wildflower honey, cloves and cherries to the palate. A hint of peat finely laces the honey finish. This is a bottle ideal for drinking on its own.

    SINGLE MALT KOMAGATAKE LIMITED EDITION 2018

    Matured in American white oak and bourbon casks for a minimum of three years solely at Mars Shinshu Distillery, it makes for an outstanding entry-level pour. The charming layers of white flowers, pears and citrus are accentuated by a discreet smoke in the background. The annual release is limited to 10,000 bottles with stocks running out. The coming months will see the 2019 edition and, with the 2018 being this good, there's a lot to look forward to.

    Mars Whisky is available at bars including Anti:Dote, Neon Pigeon, The Winery Tapas bar and Wheeler's Estate.

(RELATED: Japanese whisky: Is a shortage of aged labels really a cause of concern?)

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: Japan Whisky Tours, Tomatin Distillery & Great Southern Distilling Company