Taiwan is one of the richest countries in the world. It’s a center for technology and home to 23 million people. The island nation now has a new claim to fame: home of the world’s best whisky.
Recently, Kavalan’s Solist Vinho Barrique was named the “Best Single Malt Whisky in the World” at the World Whiskies Awards. Taiwan is only 400 kilometers long and 200 kilometers wide. “It’s a very small island, but we drink a lot of whisky,” says Kavalan’s Master Blender Ian Chang (pictured above). Taiwan is the number five scotch importer in the world.
Solist Vinho Barrique
Chang refers to the award winner as the most special and unique whisky that they make.
“Whenever I nose it, I get this very nice chocolate, toffee notes. Also, what Dr. Jim Swan (Kavalan’s whisky consultant) would describe as the “freshly baked baguette” type of notes that are very clean and crisp coming from the vinho sherry.” Judges at the World Whiskies Awards said that it tasted like “bourbon infused milk chocolate”.
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Originally, the only reason the whisky was aged in wine casks was because of the shortage of American Oak barrels. Chang and Dr. Swan pondered what to do if they couldn’t purchase any more casks from the US. They realized that there was a great deal of wine casks available from all over the world.
“When it comes to wine casks it’s very important that we get rid of the unwanted acids and unwanted flavors from wines and that’s why we need to do a shaving process,” says Chang. They do this by using a specially designed shaving machine. Certain thickness layers contain all the unwanted notes. “If we can shave it off very precisely, we can maintain all the wanted and nice aromas from the wine.” After this comes toasting and eventually the maturation of whisky.
A Young Distilling Culture
The distillery has only been open since 2005. That’s because, prior to 2002, only the government was allowed to produce or sell alcohol. On the first of January, in 2002, Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization. This is when the government began to loosen alcohol regulations.
The construction of the distillery began in April of 2005. It only took nine months to build the distillery, which is most likely a record. “It’s kind of like having a baby in nine months time,” says Chang. To add to that, it only took forty-five days to install all of the equipment.
“Our very first drop of new make spirit was produced on the 11th of March , 2006 at precisely 3:30pm.” This was a very historical moment for Taiwan. “That was the first new make whisky ever produced in Taiwan.” Kavalan went on the market in Taiwan in 2008, but because of trade regulations, it didn’t make it to the US until April 2014.
The distillery is named Kavalan because that is the old name of the area its located: Yilan County. “The distillery is located here and that’s why back in 2004, we chose the name Kavalan as the name of the distillery.” They believe that it’s a perfect name for Taiwan’s first whisky distillery.
“Some consumers, especially European consumers, ask me, Kavalan and Macallan, they sound similar.” They wonder if Kavalan is trying to sound like the famed Scotch distillery. Chang points out that the similarity is purely coincidental, but they have no problem being associated with one of the most popular whiskies in the world.
You’ll also notice the absence of any age statement on any of their labels. That’s because, according to Chang, it’s just not necessary. “Whenever I do tasting, people always ask me how old the whisky is. I always say that it’s the right age.”
The Key Ingredients
At Kavalan, they believe that technology can be the solution to many problems. “That’s why technology has always been a major part of our production,” says Chang. They believe that by using state of the art computerized displays, they can make sure that their new make spirit is consistent from batch to batch. “This is very important because we think that if you can make your new make spirit very consistent, you can make sure that after maturation, the results will be even better.”
“You don’t have to worry about sulfur or other unpleasant notes coming from the new make spirit. I know that some people may say that whisky is an art, but we think that it’s a fusion of art and technology.” 70% technology and 30% art. “That’s where the blending comes in.”
When Mr. Lee decided that he was going to make whisky, many of his colleagues told him that it wasn’t possible to make whisky in Taiwan because of the heat. After much research, they realized that the heat is actually on their side because it speeds up maturation. “It’s very important that you monitor the quality very regularly so that you don’t over mature the whisky by leaving the spirit in the cask for too long,” says Chang. Because of the climate, they can’t put age statements on their whiskies. “It’s something that we have turned around and made it our advantage from something that originally seemed like a disadvantage.”
In the heat of Taiwan, after maturation, whisky becomes even softer and smoother in a very short time. “That’s why we think sub-tropical heat is like sandpaper that smoothes away all the rough edges of the new make spirit into a very round and soft crystal ball structure, or body of the whisky.”
“Mr. Lee [Kavalan’s owner] set up his own distillery because he has great passion for whisky. He loves whisky. He thinks that passion is the ultimate ingredient to success.”