If the Scots are the craftsman of the whisky world, passing down tradition and technique year after year because it works, then the Japanese are the engineers, dissecting and reassembling each component part. The Taiwanese are the artists, free willing and experimental; it’s insane that we can even make that analogy because there is only one distillery in Taiwan and it’s barely into its Tween years.
After Taiwan joined the WTO in 2002 Mr. Tien-Tsai Lee, founder of the KingCarbeverage conglomerate, was finally able to enter the whisky world and established the Kavalan distillery in 2005. The distillery takes it’s name from the Taiwanesse aboriginal ethnic group that originally inhabited Yilan county where the distillery is located in northeastern Taiwan. The distillery is built with classic Scottish pot stills and massive technological steps were taken to protect the fermentation and the distillation from the Taiwanese heat. Rather than adhere to how things are done traditionally they have worked to embrace the natural elements of Taiwan, most notably climate, to create something unique in the increasingly crowded whisky landscape.
The distilleries first new make flowed from the stills in early 2006 and the distilleries first whisky, the Kavalan Classic Single Malt, was released in December of 2008. That is a massively fast turn around for a new single malt. For the Scotch and the Japanese you can’t even legally call a product whisky until its aged for a minimum of three years and most distillers in those countries would call a three year old far too immature and unripe for release. This brings us back to the climate.
Almost every year, as reliable as new iPhone releases, someone touts a new aging process that’s a breakthrough that allows for rapid aging, creating the equivalent of a 12-year old scotch in a fraction of the time. In every case the whisky produced by these methods either never materializes or falls vastly short of it’s lofty goals. I’d be just as skeptical of the claims that once the team at Kavalan stopped resisting the humidity and heat of the sub-Tropical Taiwanese environment they were able to rapidly age their product if the whisky in the bottle wasn’t so damn good. As their Master Blender Ian Chang says, “We think of our heat as a sandpaper and our newly made spirit as a rock with edges,”
But it’s not just the unique climate. Kavalan is also exceptionally good at cask management. This cask management truly shines in their Soloist series.
The Soloist series is a lineup of Single Cask, Cask Strength, and Single Malt whiskies and it is these releases that made drinkers sit up and take notice. It is called the Soloist line because every release is like a soloist in a concert where their classic series is the whole orchestra. These releases quickly gained notoriety until in 2015, a mere ten years after breaking ground on the distillery, one of these releases, the Vinho Barrique, won “World’s Best Single Malt” in the World Whiskies Awards.
The Vinho Barrique harnesses the climate and marries it with excellent cask selection. The casks use a shave, toast, and re-char process on old Portuguese wine casks that creates a heavy oak influenced whisky. But rather than produce the heavily tannic, overly woody notes we often see in American quarter casks, instead it’s a finely tuned balance with rich dark berries, plum, and tropical fruit dancing along the edges of the oak’s vanilla and tannin while swimming in the traditional malt backbone of a well aged whisky. Being bottled at cask strength cuts through what could have been a cloying sweetness to instead add a spice note that allows the finish to linger long into the night.
This award and bottling blew the roof off of Kavalan and their prices soon followed. In fact, many of the Soloist series had to be turned into standard issue, non-cask strength releases for the U.S. to keep up with demand even with the distillery expanding in 2015 to become the 9th largest single malt distillery in the world. They’re still experimenting and utilizing that climate and those casks with a new series of single barrel, cask strength, sherry and port cask releases that you’ll probably never casually encounter without a starting price tag of $400+ per bottle.
So what are you likely to encounter? Well, with the Soloists taking a quick intermission the concert continues with the Kavalan Classic that we mentioned before. Keep in mind this is a young distillery, no matter what accolades they’ve accrued, and they’re still playing with their formula. Point in fact, the Classic is an 80 proof bottling for most of the world but to appeal to American palates and American fans of the overproof work, here it’s bottled at a slightly bigger 86 proof.
A blend of ex-Bourbon, ex-sherry, and ex-wine casks all about 4-4.5 years old it doesn’t drink like a young whisky and has a lighter complexion. Stone fruit, a touch of floral sherry, and vanilla with a distinctive toasted malt are all present. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the bonfire that is the Vinho Barrique or really any of the Soloist single barrels. Which is a shame because those bottles are quickly becoming unicorns.
In the end it comes back to our craftsman vs. engineers vs. artists. The artists at Kavalan have produced a few shining masterpieces but they haven’t quite mastered the skill that sets the craftsmen and the engineers apart: blending. The Japanese have been able to set themselves apart by truly understanding and controlling every drop of whisky to blend it together to create art and the Scots have years of tradition that makes it seem a natural talent. Kavalan is just dipping its brush into the wider world of consistency.
Just as the Taiwanese heat seems to speed their whisky more swiftly to maturity, Kavalan itself has sped right into all the major touch stones of the modern whisky world: craft distilling, underdog appeal, rapid growth and awards, price hikes and shortages. No matter where it goes from here there is no denying that Kavalan is true global player.