I had the opportunity to meet Ian Chang, Master Blender at Kavalan Whisky while attending the Tokyo Whisky Show in late 2018. I had tasted a few expressions of Kavalan whisky before, but it was that conversation with Ian which had me convinced that I had to visit Kavalan distillery and the beautiful whisky loving country of Taiwan.
The King Car Group is one of Taiwans largest conglomerates with business interests ranging from Logistics to Biotechnology and beyond. It was however the dream of Mr. Tien-Tsai Lee, the founder of the group to establish a truly world class distillery in his home country. He roped in the late Dr. Jim Swan to help him and his Master Blender, Ian Chang to make this dream a reality.
The Kavalan Distillery was established in 2005 with the first new make rolling off the stills in 2006 and the first release, the Kavalan Classic Single Malt releasing in 2008. The iconic Solist range of single cask whiskies was launched in 2009. While Kavalan whiskies picked up numerous awards over the years, it really caught the world’s attention in 2015 when the Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique Single Cask Strength was awarded the “World’s Best Single Malt” and the “Best Asian Single Malt” in the World Whisky Awards.
I visited Kavalan Distillery on a blazing hot and humid summer day a couple of months ago. The summer heat touching 45°C certainly isn’t the kind of weather one would expect in the Scottish Highlands. However the location of the distillery also means biting cold winters. Located in Yilan County in the North East of Taiwan, it is surrounded by mountains. As Kaitlyn Tsai, Kavalan Brand Ambassador says, “The mountains form a hand to receive the freezing cold Siberian winds in winter”. The extreme temperature changes from summer to winter result in rapid maturation and Kavalan also experiences a 10-12% angel’s share versus the 1-2% in Scotland. As Ian describes it, “We refer to this unique ripening process as Maturity Redefined, which creates the signature character and style of Kavalan”. There are experiments on to reduce the Angel’s share further to 7-8%. These highly anticipated results will most likely be out in 2020.
The unique style Kavalan style that Ian speaks about can be seen right from their rich new make full of tropical flavours like pineapple, mango and banana. This new make then goes into carefully selected casks in their 5 storey warehouses. 90% of the casks used at Kavalan are made of American Oak since the casks impart a mellow flavour to the spirit in the hot humid conditions as compared to the more tannin heavy astringency that one would get from European Oak.
Casks are stored in the warehouse in increasing order of sizes with the smallest 200 litre bourbon casks on the first floor, 350 litre wine casks on the second floor right up to the 600 litre port pipes and sherry butts on the top floor. The reason for this is that larger casks, having less wood contact with the spirit need more time to mature. Since temperature increases by floor, the maturation is normalised in a way, across casks.
Dr. Jim Swan introduced the concept of Shaving, Toasting and Recharring (STR) Casks to the whisky world and he brought this technique to Kavalan. Kavalan applies this to their wine casks. The award winning Vinho Barrique Solist was matured in these STR casks.
The Kavalan Range comprises of the Core Range of Single Malts, The Distiller’s Select, Distillery Reserves – Peaty Cask and Rum Cask and the most coveted Solist Range of Single Cask Single Malts.
To get an idea of the true Kavalan house style of whisky, one must try the Distillery Select. The clean tropical fruit notes of mango with grapefruit and green apple sets one up for the rest of the whiskies in the stable.
The Core Range consists of the entry level Kavalan Classic, Concertmaster, King Car Conductor, ex-Bourbon Oak, Oloroso Sherry Oak and the Podium. Of these I found the Oloroso to be the stand out and even comparable to the Solist I tasted the same day.
Of the Distillery Reserves, I was partial to the Peaty Cask which is Kavalan whisky matured in ex-Islay casks. I look forward to their releases of peated whisky which is currently maturing in their warehouses.
The Solist Range consists of single cask whiskies matured in a myriad of casks and bottled at cask strength – ex-Bourbon, Oloroso Sherry, Fino Sherry, Vinho Barrique (STR wine barrels), Brandy, Amontillado Sherry, Manzanilla Sherry, PX Sherry, Moscatel Sherry and Port Wine. Of these, the Fino, PX and Moscatel were the stand outs. Detailed tasting notes for my picks can be found at the end.
Special mention must also be made about the blending experience at the distillery which is a great deal of fun. Guests are given 3 component whiskies with different flavour profiles carefully chosen by Ian and one blends together these whiskies in their preferred proportion to arrive at their personal blend. This can then be taken away in a gorgeously packaged 500ml bottle.
As you may have guessed by now, I left the distillery with a new found appreciation for the wonderful work being done by the Kavalan team. I highly recommend trying out Kavalan whisky as it adds another dimension to world whisky with its distinct tropical character and maturation in some of the finest casks available.
Some interesting facts for my fellow whisky geeks out there....
Barley used to make Kavalan whisky is sourced from England (90% ) and Scandinavia (10%)
The distillery was expanded 2016 with a new stillhouse with 5 additional pairs of Scottish pot stills. This increased production capacity to 10 Million bottles a year.
There are 5 mashing tun and 40 Stainless Steel washbacks. The washbacks have cooling jackets to regulate temperature.
Three waters are used for mashing at 65°C, 85°C to 90°C. As with most distilleries, the third water is used as the first water for the next batch
Two kinds of yeast are used. The first is to maximise yield and the second to generate tropical fruit flavours mango, pineapple and banana.
Fermentation time is 60 hours yielding a 8% ABV wash
In 2008, a set of German stills were installed. They were used to make whisky shortly, but it didn’t work out as the whisky wasn’t as rich as expected. They have been repurposed to make gin.
Casks are tied up after being put on palettes in the warehouse. This is done as the region is subject to frequent earthquakes
Kavalan is very strict that no sulphur is used in the cask for preservation during transport. The cask transport is expedited after dumping in Jerez and is filled with new make immediately on landing in Taiwan.
Kavalan is the visited distillery in the world with more than 1 Million visitors annually. They are mostly Taiwanese vacationers as the region is a popular tourist destination.
In Taiwan, aging requirement is minimum 2 years, but Kavalan ages their non CS whiskies for a minimum of 4 years.
Kavalan launched a Gin in 2018 which used local botanicals from the Yilan region
Here are the tasting notes for my picks in the Kavalan range.
Keep in mind, however, that the Solist range, being all single casks will see a fair amount of variation across bottlings.
Kavalan Distillery Select
Grapfruit, mangoes and green apple
Same notes from the nose couples with loads of fresh citrus
Medium length with the tropical fruits and some vanilla from the casks
Kavalan Oloroso Sherry 46%
This is a vatting of 80-100 First Fill and Refill Oloroso Sherry casks
Lovely deep oloroso notes of dried fruits, sultanas coupled with a pleasantly astringent wood note.
Wood forward palate with dried fruits and sultanas coupled with a muted sourness
Full and viscous
Dry, sweet and long with the mild lingering wood notes
Kavalan Distillery Reserve Peaty Cask
Since the bottles were not available for tasting at the distillery, I picked up samples to try later
Tropical Kavalan notes couples with a marine peat in the background
Nose translates directly onto the palate. This feels like a distillers select matured in peated casks
Medium length with lingering sweetness and smoky brine
Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry (Cask No. FI100709018B)
Elegant sherry notes, yet a vibrant layered nose with a sherry mellowness sorrounding the Kavaln tropical fruits
Mellow at the start, sherry spices begin to build. The quality of the cask comes to the fore with beautifully balanced tannins
Full and viscous
Very drying, long and sweet. This is one to take your time with
Kavalan Pedro Ximenez Sherry Cask (Cask No. PX100630028A)
Beautiful sherried nose with dried fruits and very nutty. A mellow elegant lightness I'm not accustomed to in PX whiskies
Mellow sherry spices, yet beautiful balance with the sherry and Kavalan characters. Orange & citrus start to come through when given time
Full and luscious
Long, sweet and mellow with lingering citrus
Kavalan Moscatel Sherry Cask (Cask No. S100623028A)
Fairly muted and thick sweet nose of brown chocolate and cocoa
Very thick with loads of cocoa, chocolate & sherry spices. Just beautifully balanced with gorgeous orange notes coming through. Think dark chocolate & orange
As full and syrupy as they come
Long, thick and lingering with a deep chocolate and cocoa sweetness
I would like to thank Kaitlyn Tsai, Sandra Tsai, Ian Change and the entire Kavalan team for the wonderful hospitality during my visit to the distillery. It truly was a memorable experience and I look forward to visiting again soon.
Uday Balaji is the Managing Partner of The Whisky Advisor, your one stop shop for Whisk(e)y training, events, advisory and beyond. Uday is based out of India, but constantly travels across whisky regions learning and passing on knowledge about whiskies from across the world. Get in touch with him at uday[at]thewhiskyadvisor.[com] if you would like to collaborate.