On the Trail

Taiwan's Magnificent Single Malt

David Driscoll

It took all day and all night to fly from San Francisco to Taipei, and another two hour drive into the mountains before we made it to the King Car Company’s mountain compound. I woke up to a hazy, humid, tropical morning at the Kavalan distillery; the morning light inflecting a pale color onto the lush garden grounds. I could see the distillery from my bedroom window as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. It was impossible to see much out the window as we landed in Taiwan—a typhoon in the area made the weather a bit rough—and I was too exhausted to do anything other than fall face-first into my pillow when we reached the estate. The subtropical greenery of the mountains was now visible in the distance. We were in the jungle.

Kavalan distillery is really just part of a much larger facility operated by the King Car Company. The center is located at the base of the hills with what looks like rainforest beyond it. If I didn't know I was in Taiwan I might think I was in Columbia. They make all kinds of other products here including breakfast drinks, coffee, even soap, and they have vineyards for wine production as well. I traveled to Kavalan as a guest of Anchor Spirits, the American importer for the whisky. King Car was looking to expand its footprint to the states after receiving high praise in parts of Asia and Europe. Before heading into the distillery proper, we gathered in a UN-style conference room to watch a short film about the King Car Company. No precursor could have been more appropriate to start the Kavalan experience. Many of us were giggling throughout the introduction; not because we were mocking the video, but because of how completely unpretentious the presentation was. It was an irony free instructional tool not unlike what I watched in elementary school. 

There was not one trace of irony in any of the explanations concerning King Car's advances in pesticides, or the increase in food safety measures. Every aspect of the company's agenda was detailed and given with the utmost admiration, even though much of the information was completely out of touch with what's currently trendy in the American spirits market. There was no talk about "handcrafting" or "small batch" production, and no mention of "hands-on" care. The automatized aspects of Kavalan Distillery were points of pride, not humor. Efficiency is key in Taiwan, just as it is in Scotland, but there's no attempt to romanticize the process. Quality is in the details, as it should be. After four years of complete rusticity, I found this utterly refreshing. The film made me so happy, that when we finally met with Kavalan's master distiller Ian Chang in front of the entrance, I shook his hand and said, "Great video, man. Absolutely great." He was all smiles, as usual.

That's not to say that Kavalan is a distillery run completely by computers and robots, because it isn't. There are twenty guys there just working with cooperage, which is more than some distilleries in Scotland employ for an entire week's shift. The Taiwanese are proud of their technological advances and don't feel the need to remain rustic just because that's what's cool right now. In fact, I don't think they even realize that's what's cool right now in the American boutique food and wine scene. Do you know how wonderful it is to visit a producer completely lacking in pretense? It's incredible. That's Kavalan in a nutshell: completely honest and straightforward without any hipster chip on its shoulder. They're not trying to impress you with their knowledge of 18th century farm practices. They're trying to impress you with incredible technology like their automated blowtorch that re-toasts and re-invigorates their whisky barrels. 

Yes, folks, they’re making single malt whisky in Taiwan now. Just like in Scotland. In many ways, better than in Scotland. There are gigantic copper pot stills like you see at all the famous distilleries, churning away as the smell of new-make whisky fills the air. In a lot of ways, Kavalan reminds me of a combination of Caol Ila and Port Ellen; the way the distillery looks and feels. It's modern and mechanical like Caol Ila and the placement of floor-to-ceiling windows opposite the pot stills is very reminiscent of the way the Islay giant faces Jura in the distance. We were able to taste the white whisky off the still and I was taken aback by how fruit-forward it was. Since opening in 2005, Kavalan has employed a long 60 hour ferment (much like Oban), helping to bring out the fruity elements of the whisky.

While Kavalan distills its whisky just like the Scottish do, their whisky tastes utterly unique and for a very clear reason. The most important aspect of Kavalan's overall flavor has to do with the cooperage and the warehouse conditions at the site. They use a five floor warehouse to create different temperatures, resulting in various speeds of maturation. It's part of the reason they've had so much success with their fino sherry expression; a type of cask that Bowmore distillery gave up on after thirty years of lackluster results. Scotland simply doesn't get warm enough to release that delicate fino flavor upon the whisky aging inside the barrel. The intense and humid heat of Taiwan, on the other hand, seems to bring out the best in certain sherry butts. When it gets as hot as it does at Kavalan, the flavor of the wood intensifies the flavor of the whisky itself.

Which brings us to our next point of interest: the three new K&L exclusive ex-Bourbon casks that just landed from Taiwan, representing our first-ever direct purchase from Kavalan as a company. The intense heat of the maturation conditions helped to bring out the Bourbon residue and re-establish that intensely oak flavor into the single malt whisky aging inside the casks. The result is utterly delicious. While Kavalan distillery once faced an uphill battle, selling the quality of their precocious and young single malt whisky to a world of skeptics, it didn't take long to ultimately sway the critics. When the Kavalan Vinho Barrique expression won "best in the world" at the 2015 World Whisky Awards the entire planet took notice and Kavalan's reputation received an instant shot in the arm. That's when we knew we needed to secure our own set of supplies. We selected three delicious casks from the producer's Solist series as a result.

Barrel #52A has classic American whiskey aromatics with intense oak and a high dose of vanilla with more toasted oak character coming through strong on the palate. At 58.6% ABV, the alcohol is potent and intense, so water is definitely recommended. With a few drops, the whisky unloosens itself and opens up more fruit and spice with additional layers of toasted oak and vanilla, but the structure never fades. The oak has penetrated deeply into this whisky. The finish is strong. Barrel #75A is another beast of a whisky at 58.6% ABV, but it's the richest of the three by a hair with subtle floral elements that dance atop the intense oak flavor. There's more maltiness apparent on the palate than the others and there's a tropical coconut note on the finish that comes from the sweetness of the oak. It still needs water, however, as the high proof masks much of the complexity when taken neat. It's a whisky to unlock slowly and methodically. Barrel #76A is the softest of the three at a mere 57.8%, and with water showcases a creamier and more nuanced palate of vanilla, fruit, and burnt sugar. This is the prettiest of the bunch with pronounced maltiness on the finish and plenty of spice. It's classic Bourbon barrel-aged single malt, but with more oak concentration from the warm maturation environment.

They're making real single malt whisky in Taiwan. I've been there, seen it, tasted it, and purchased it. Now we want to share it with you. 

-David Driscoll