Review: The Next Great Japanese Whisky Is Here, And It’s Affordable

The story behind IWAI 45, a $35 stunner from Mars Whisky

Mars IWAI 45 Whiskey
IWAI 45, a new and approachable release from Japan's Mars Whisky
High Road Spirits

What we’re drinking: Three new releases from Mars Whisky: IWAI 45, Tsunuki the First and Komagatake 2020

Where it’s from: Mars crafts most of its whiskey in the Nagano Alps, making it Japan’s highest-elevation distillery. But they have another distillery along the humid coast in the south. As well, they also age some of their hooch in a building on a Natural Heritage Site in a subtropical jungle.

Mars whisky
The three expressions we tried from Mars Whisky
High Road Spirits

Why we’re drinking this: The demand for Japanese whisky has exploded over the years. But so have prices. Finding smaller producers — Mars is the fourth-largest in Japan but much less known than, say, Suntory or Nikka — is important for the future of the category. 

Plus, Mars (which got its initial whisky license back in 1949) is producing some unique stuff — even with aging at as little as three years. And in a particular example below, the price point is hard to beat.

Making releases from Mars truly stand out: The willingness to play with all those climates, elevations (witness the effect of the salinity of the air near the southern distillery) and also barrel choices. “Everything about Mars is about achieving a degree of harmony,” says Kris Elliott, co-founder of importer High Road Spirits, which is releasing the whisky in the U.S. “So you’ll see something like a peated whisky but softer and mellower in style.” 

The distillery has been racking up awards, including a best single cask single malt designation at the 2019 World Whiskies Awards and a world’s best blended whisky during the 2013 edition.

The Golden Manhattan at Chicago’s Kumiko uses IWAI 45 as its base
High Road Spirits

How it tastes

  • IWAI 45: Featuring a slightly higher ABV (45%) and aged in ex-bourbon barrels, this is surprisingly the real winner of the three, and the cheapest ($35). A high corn and malted barley mash bill, IWAI has decided notes of mint and menthol (with some sharp fruit and vanilla). Unusual and almost refreshing, we can see why this would be an ideal base for any whisky (or bourbon) cocktail. 
  • Komagatake 2020: A single malt whisky aged for just over three years in sherry casks and American White Oak make barrels, though you won’t taste the youth here. If you like a Scotch with a sherry influence but not an overwhelming one, this is your pick. A lot of dried fruit and brown sugar notes here, all warm and gentle on the finish. Harmony achieved.
  • Tsunuki the First: The first release from Mars’s southern Distillery, this single malt spent over three years in ex-bourbon barrels and sherry casks. There’s a hint of smoke, some maple syrup and a little dried fruit, plus a bit of noticeable salinity, due to the proximity to sea level. The boldest flavor here, although the heat dissipates quickly and pleasantly.

Fun fact: There’s currently an extreme lack of regulation when it comes to Japanese whisky — and very little product you could tie to a specific distillery.  “You could basically pour brown coloring into a vodka,” admits Elliott, who does note this spring should bring new tax regulations and definitions within the country.  (Update: And those regulations were just announced.)

Where to buy it: Mars Iwai 45 is available on Caskers and other online sites; for the other (more expensive) releases, you’ll want to hit up a site like Wine-Searcher to see where to find them locally.


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.