Nestled in the foothills of Tawian’s picturesque central mountain range, in Yilan, is one of the world’s most successful whisky stories.
Kavalan is the country’s first single malt distillery and, being only 10 years old, is one of the so-called ‘new orders’ of whisky that are changing the face of the marketplace.
The brand made global impact in 2010 when it beat both Scotch and English competitors at a high-profile blind tasting event in Scotland, judged by a tasting panel led by whisky connoisseur Charlie MacLean.
This not only raised eyebrows but was also the beginning of Kavalan’s winning streak, as it quickly gained top prizes and accolades from the International Wine & Spirits Competition and Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.
Most notably the Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique Single Cask Strength cleaned up at the World Whiskies Awards in 2015, being honored as the World’s Best Single Malt Whisky and the Best Asian Single Malt.
Today, more than one million people visit Kavalan annually. To put that into perspective, around 1.5 million whisky lovers make the pilgrimage to Scotland’s distilleries each year.
As such, Kavalan has had to double its production line in order to cope with demand. It’s now the ninth largest single malt distillery in the world by capacity.
Fun fact: Kavalan ties its casks together four-by-four, to safeguard against earthquakes
Master blender Ian Chang says: ‘Since the start of our global expansion in 2012, Kavalan has exported to more than 40 countries and with worldwide demand outstripping supply, we took the step to expand our production line from 10 copper stills to 20 last year.
‘With our second distillery, our capacity can reach 10 million bottles so that we can keep releasing different types of barrels.
‘Taiwan is in fact the only market that sells more single malt than blended whisky,’ Chang explains, ‘whilst sitting in the top five markets by value for Scotch whisky in the world.’
Kavalan’s journey started in 2002 when Taiwan joined the World Trade Organisation—which enabled private ownership of spirit production, and, in turn, for Tsian Tsai Lee of the King Car Group to turn his lifelong dream into a reality.
The first spirit to come off the Scottish-made copper pot stills was in March 2006.
King Car commissioned Scotland’s leading whisky production specialist Dr Jim Swan as its ongoing whisky consultant and recruited Ian Chang as its master blender.
While Kavalan draws upon external guidance, this is very much a proud product of Taiwan—the name Kavalan refers to the earliest tribe that inhabited Yilan.
Although the house style created at the distillery draws similarities with a signature Speyside malt—it is fruity, floral yet delicate—the subtropical climate of Taiwan (its summer temperatures are twice as high as Scotland’s) helps speed up the extraction of flavour from the cask.
The 95 percent humidity assists to compress the amount of natural evaporation—more commonly known as the angels’ share.
A staggering 10-12 percent of each cask volume is lost compared to two percent in Scotland.
It is therefore impossible to compare a 12-year-old Scotch to a 12-year-old Kavalan, as the cask yield is drastically different due to the faster maturation.
The whisky also owes a lot to its natural setting, Chang explains.
‘We also benefit from sea, mountain breezes and Snow Mountain’s spring water, which combine to contribute to the sweetness and pureness of new makes and create Kavalan whisky’s signature creaminess.’
The Changing Face of Whisky
Kavalan is more than just a whisky in the owner’s eyes. There’s notable pride and passion.
In 10 years it has certainly placed Taiwan on the distilling map, with connoisseurs now talking up ‘new world’ whiskies. These new markets offer a lot of potential for the industry.
‘There’s a growing number of whisky consumers in the new world distilling nations,’ Chang adds.
‘As they become familiar with the various types of whiskies from the old world, they have grown quite sophisticated in their tastes.
‘Distilleries in old regions have responded to this interest by creating and marketing a growing number of options, focusing on more expensive types.
‘Therefore, we could expect a more interesting whisky industry in the future.’
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Photos: Kavalan Distillery