Text: Mamoru Tsuchiya
Images: Provided by Hombo Shuzo
Translation: Whiskey Richard
This column originally appeared in Japanese in Whisky Galore Vol.29 / December 2021.It’s not uncommon for whisky series’ labels to use motifs of life. The former United Distillers, today Diageo, had the famed “Flora & Fauna” series. But nowhere else in the world is there an example of a whisky using insects, especially butterflies. Hombo Shuzo’s “Mars Malt Le Papillon” series–Papillon is French for butterfly–uses only butterflies found in Japan.
Launched in February 2017, so far eleven different bottles have been released. As the name Mars Malt indicates, the contents are all malt whiskies from Hombo Shuzo, where entries 1 through 10 were distilled at the Mars Shinshu Distillery. With only two exceptions, they are all single cask, cask strength, natural color bottlings. Entry No. 8 in the series, “A. puspa” was a vatting of two different casks, then had a bit of water added. And entry No. 11, released in May 2021, was not Mars Shinshu single malt but a cask strength vatting of two casks of Mars Tsunuki distillate.
In fact, the choices of both the butterflies used on the labels and whiskies to match them are made by Hombo Shuzo president Mr. Kazuto Hombo. He was born in 1954 in Kagoshima prefecture’s Minamisatsuma, in Kaseda, where the Tsunuki Distillery is. Kaseda is a basin surrounded by mountains, and at the time, in addition to making shochu, Hombo Shuzo was a big part of revitalizing mandarin cultivation in the area. It’s there that, during his childhood, mandarin fields were his playground. In the countryside of Minamisatsuma, he took an interest in insects. And especially butterflies, he says.
He later moved from his hometown Kagoshima to Tokyo to attend Keio University, where he joined an insect study group. He collected specimens of butterflies from Kagoshima and all across Japan. Hombo Group had a factory in Brazil at the time, and he asked to work there after graduating from university. He is a hardcore appréciateur of butterflies, with knowledge well beyond that of any novice. Thus the “Le Papillon” series.
The idea is “expressing the natural environment in which whisky matures through the motifs of butterflies living in Japan.” The 11 entries in the series are S. divinus, G. sarpedon, A. hippia, H. glaucippe, P. maackii, C. thyodamas, L. japonica, A. puspa, A. cardamines, I. io, and P. helenus. From the name choice alone you can see there are some expert selections. On top of that, there’s a Mars whisky excellently matched with each motif.
Both Shinshu and Tsunuki use malt at four peating levels, from 0 to 50 ppm. There are multiple yeasts, and a wide variety of casks, then there’s the aging environments of Shinshu, Tsunuki, and Yakushima. The possible permutations of aroma and flavor are limitless, so this is why they’re being paired with species of butterflies. “Japan has 257 different species of butterfly. I want to express all of them using Mars malt” says Hombo-san, his face returning to his boyhood days, chasing bugs around Minamisatsuma.
Mamoru Tsuchiya is Japan’s foremost whisky critic. He is the Representative Director of the Japan Whisky Research Centre, and was named one of the “World’s Best Five Whisky Writers” by Highland Distillers in 1998. He served as the whisky historian for NHK’s Massan and he has published several books such as The Complete Guide to Single Malt Whisky, Taketsuru’s Life and Whisky, and The Literacy of Whisky. He is the editor of the bimonthly Whisky Galore, Japan’s only print whisky magazine.