While Japanese whisky's popularity has skyrocketed over the past couple of years, perhaps the biggest single malt story of 2015 occurred when Taiwan's King Car Distillery won "World's Best Single Malt" at the World Whisky Awards for its Kavalan Vinho Barrique expression. Up until that point the Taiwanese-distilled spirits had garnered loads of curiosity coupled with cautiousness in terms of purchasing. People were skeptical that young single malt whisky made in a tropical climate could compete on the same level as its Scottish counterparts—including the Taiwanese! "Many people here in Taiwan wouldn't accept the whisky until it began catching on in Europe," Kavalan's master blender Ian Chang told me. "They wanted to make sure the rest of the world approved of it first." The people of Taiwan certainly got their answer at the 2015 World Whisky Awards. Kavalan whisky went from an uncertainty to the world's best practically overnight and sales went through the roof.
Before the awards and accolades made Kavalan's single malt whisky a household name, I got the chance to tour the facility with Ian as a guest of the King Car Company. I caught the late flight from Tokyo to Taipei and made the hour and a half drive into the mountains before crashing face-first into my bed from exhaustion. The next morning, however, I was rejuvenated by the sight from my window: the pagoda roof of the malting center jutting skyward like Port Ellen in the middle of the rainforest. Ian met me after breakfast to take me around the production center. I was going to get a first-hand look into Kavalan's secret to success.
The first thing that I think most people should understand about Taiwan's first whisky distillery is that the King Car Company is making whisky exactly like the Scottish and Japanese do—using copper pot stills to distill a 100% malted barley mash into single malt spirit. The still room looks much like Caol Ila distillery with its huge floor-to-ceiling windows that allow light to shine onto the massive copper domes. Absolutely no expense was spared and no corners were cut. Kavalan is a serious and formidable producer in this sense.
Kavalan's whiskies also utilize ex-Bourbon, ex-Sherry, and hogshead casks as maturation vessels, so they're aged much like Scottish and Japanese whiskies. However, whereas Scotland is pretty much frigid year-round and Japan remains rather temperate, Taiwan is located along the Tropic of Cancer and remains warm and humid much of the time. The higher temperatures and tropical climate help to extract much more of the wood flavor from the cask as the whisky matures. Colder temperatures force the wood to contract and prevents the liquid from seeping in too deeply. That's not to say the whiskies necessarily mature faster in warmer conditions, but they definitely get woodier at a younger age. It's for that reason that Kavalan has been able to create an extremely palatable whisky in a very short period of time.
Where Kavalan has shined, however, has been in its ability to take wine-treated barrels and utilize those casks with the humid Taiwanese climate to extract a rich and fruity flavor never before tasted in a single malt whisky. Two examples would be the award-winning Vinho Barrique expression that uses American oak casks previously filled with both red and white wines and the Kavalan Fino edition that uses Spanish Fino Sherry butts. The amount of concentration that Kavalan has been able to pack into the liquid is absolutely unparalleled. The Vinho Barrique is almost tropical itself with mango and melon flavors, while the Fino is brimming with marzipan and candied almonds. We sat down for dinner with King Car's owner Mr. Lee and drank nothing but Ridge Zinfandel and Kavalan Fino for three hours. I think I was one of the few who made it out of the room alive (thanks to a number of "ghost" shots that I put up to my lips, but never actually consumed), but what impressed me the most was how complex the whisky's profile was despite its young age. Each sip was so explosive and unveiled new flavors the longer I kept in on my palate.
As I took another walk past the on-site cooperage and watched them caramelize the oak inside the casks, I realized that much of King Car's success lies in its ability to understand its surroundings. They say that successful people understand their strengths and weaknesses and simply know how to best utilize their inherent talents. In the case of Kavalan's whisky, I'd say this is the case. As far as distillation is concerned, Ian and the gang are distilling high-quality Scottish-style single malt the way that hundreds of other producers do all over the world. It's the maturation process, however, that helps Kavalan distinguish its whisky from the hoards of others. They're purposely rejuvenating their barrels to unleash the maximum level of intensity and creatively seasoning those casks to unlock specific flavor combinations that are then intensified by the climate. It's the rich, ripe, full-bodied flavor that grabs your attention and keeps you interested. If you want to understand Taiwanese whisky you need to first feel the humidity on your skin. You need to sweat through your shirt and run for the A/C of your hotel room. When you imagine a whisky sweating like that inside of a saturated wine barrel, you'll comprehend exactly what's happening at the King Car Distillery. These guys know exactly what they're doing.