Mars Whisky is a name well-known to most Japanese whisky drinkers and collectors. Their
fourth second whisky distillery, the Mars Tsunuki Distillery, began operation in Kagoshima prefecture's Minamisatsuma City in 2016.
Who's behind it
Hombo Shuzo is part of the massive Hombo Group, a conglomerate with interests spanning multiple industries: combinis, logistics, retail, foodstuffs, and of course alcohol.
Is Tsunuki Distillery the company's second, or fourth whisky distillery? Both: it's the second active one, and their fourth in company history. Hombo Shuzo got into the whisky business in 1949. But they didn't start actually distilling their own whisky until 1960, and that was at the company's Yamanashi Factory. That lasted until 1969. Distillation resumed in 1981, but this time at the company's Kagoshima Factory. That Kagoshima Factory went dark (for whisky, anyway) in 1985 upon completion of Mars Shinshu. Famously, Mars Shinshu itself went through a hiatus from 1992 to 2011.
And finally, from 2016, Shinshu Distillery is joined by Tsunuki Distillery, bringing whisky-making home (again) to Kagoshima prefecture. It's easier to make sense of the timelines when they're put side by side:
The company has had an on-again off-again relationship with whisky over the decades, but hopefully they're committed to it this time.
What kind of whisky
Single Malt JAPANESE Whiskies
While we haven't seen any products using it yet, Tsunuki also spends two months out of the year distilling grain whisky. It goes through the wash and spirit pot stills, then it's kept in holding tanks. When the company isn't using the hybrid still to make gin, they run the grain distillate through its continuous still once.
WHERE is it
Hombo Shuzo deliberately chose Minamisatsuma City in Kagoshima for their second distillery because its climate is so different from that of Mars Shinshu. Compared to the colder mountain elevations of the Shinshu region, Tsunuki follows the global trend of making and maturing whisky in warmer climates like Taiwan, Texas, and Australia. Even so, due to being surrounded by mountains, Tsunuki has a significant temperature swing between summer and winter.
Of course, that decision was made a lot easier given Kagoshima prefecture is Hombo Shuzo's hometown. And more specifically, the Tsunuki Distillery site's history goes back to long before whisky was a twinkle in any Hombo-san's eye: the distillery's gift shop/bar is inside of "Houjou," the refurbished home of the company's second-generation president.
Further, the company already had some external validation of Kagoshima-made whisky. Mars Maltage 3+25 is a blend of 3-year Yamanashi and 3-year Kagoshima distilled/aged malts, then further aged for an additional 25 years at Shinshu. This bottle won the World's Best Blended Malt title at WWA2013.
The Tsunuki Distillery you see today is not the original buildings. Given its close proximity to Chiran, from which kamikaze sorties were launched towards the end of WW2, the distillery supplied the war effort and was thus a target of Allied bombing. Even though the distillery was annihilated in 1945, it recovered quite quickly, with a new distillery building in place by 1947. The 7-story iron tower that you see at the distillery today was built in 1956, and its defunct Arospass continuous still remains inside.
WHEN did they start
The Tsunuki Distillery kicked off distillation in November 2016. Single Malt Tsunuki The First was released in April 2020. Since then, there have been a handful of additional releases.
WHY is it special
Compared to the light and clean style associated with Mars Shinshu malts, Mars Tsunuki malts are heavy and thick. This is a stated goal of the distillery, as having two significantly styles of whisky in their portfolio will allow for better blending. Already they're taking advantage of these different climates, evidenced by the Single Malt Komagatake Tsunuki Aging releases.
Notably, there are only a handful of malt whisky makers in Japan that have two distilleries with significant distance between them: Suntory (Yamazaki and Hakushu), Nikka (Yoichi and Miyagikyo), and now Mars (Shinshu and Tsunuki). Of those, Mars' whisky distilleries are the furthest apart geographically.
-Mash tun: Stainless steel, 5000L
-Washbacks: 5x stainless steel @ 6000L each
-Wash still: Miyake, 5800L, indirect heating, descending lyne arm
-Spirit still: Miyake, 2700L, indirect heating, descending lyne arm
-Hybrid still (used for grain whisky and gin): Holstein, 400L
-Pot still (legacy): 500L
-Warehouse: 1x stone, 3x dunnage
Planning your visit
Mars Tsunuki Distillery is open to the public, but you'll need to make a reservation prior to your visit. You can do so via this page. Visiting hours at 9AM to 4PM.
Images by Whiskey Richard
REFERENCES & Further reading
Suwabe, Shinichi. ジャパニーズウイスキーで世界に挑む 新世代蒸留所からの挑戦状 [Taking on the World with Japanese Whisky. Challenge from New-Generation Distilleries]. Recipbook, 2019.
Eycken, Stefan van. Whisky Rising: The Definitive Guide to the Finest Whiskies and Distillers of Japan. Cider Mill Press Book Publishers LLC, 2017.