Updated: Oct 17, 2019
Nantou distillery in the heart of Taiwan is the lesser known of the two whisky distilleries in Taiwan. The name of the whisky they produce is also unusual – Omar. Omar, in fact is the Gaelic word for Amber. The amber liquid made at Nantou distillery is uniquely Taiwanese and I had the opportunity to visit and get to know the whisky and the men behind the whisky this past summer.
Nantou distillery is owned by the government run Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation (TTL). TTL is the country’s largest alcoholic beverage producer with over 5.5 Million cases. The facility in Nantou first started off as a winery in 1978, making wine, brandy, rum and most interestingly, fruit wines.
In 1999, the distillery suffered catastrophic damage due to a massive earthquake and the resulting fire. The fire destroyed 5 warehouses among other damage. As part of the reconstruction the idea of whisky distillery took root. Whisky making know-how was brought in from Scotland along with stills from Forsyth. The distillery initially made rice wine with these stills before switching to whisky. The first malt new make ran off the stills in 2008 making it the second whisky distillery in Taiwan.
The same team operate both the distillery and the winery. The distillery operates in the milder months from fall into spring until the grape harvest starts in June. Wine, Brandy and Rum are produced from June to August. These months are too hot and inefficient to run the whisky production as the energy required to cool the system would be excessive.
They use a range of casks for maturation – Ex-Bourbon/Whiskey casks from Kentucky and Tennessee, Ex-Sherry casks from the Spanish sherry triangle as well as Brandy & Wine casks from France. What makes Nantou special though is their usage of casks from their winery in the maturation of their whiskies. Some of them I tasted were the Lychee cask, Plum cask and the quite exceptional Black queen wine cask. I was lucky to also get a private warehouse tasting of some exceptional whiskies.
As I leisurely walked through their warehouse, I stumbled upon large ceramic jars, the likes of which I have never encountered in my innumerable warehouse visits. Tucked away in a corner, these jars, normally used to age baijiu had been aging malt new make for over 4 years. I was told that the plan was to move these into oak casks, so they could eventually be called whisky before being bottled. However, this plan never materialised and the experiment seems to have been forgotten.
This response says a lot about the pace of things at Nantou distillery. They don’t work weekends, which means that their fermentation times vary between 60 and 84 hours since there’s just no one to distill the wash during the weekend. This also extends to their marketing, making Nantou whisky a true a hidden gem. From what I heard recently, they have come up with a new premium brand name – Yushan and this only means that there’s going to be more quality Taiwanese whisky hitting foreign shores soon. They have a visiting centre opening soon as well and I recommend a visit if you’re in the region.
The Omar whiskies are split into four distinct ranges - Core, Liqueur Finish, Single Cask/Cask Strength and Special Editions.
The Core range has two classic bottlings - a Bourbon type and a Sherry type. As the name suggests the new make is aged in the respective type of casks. They are solid daily sippers.
The Liqueur Finish is what I was really interested in - Plum Liqueur , Lychee Liqueur, Orange Brandy and Black Queen Wine. Tasting notes for these are below.
The third range includes all their Cask Strength Single Cask bottlings including a particularly good Peated version.
I tried two limited edition whiskies - The 8 Year Old Single Malt matured in Bourbon casks and their oldest expression, the 12 Year Old Pedro Ximenez Solera Cask Single Malt matured initially in Sherry hogsheads before being put into PX Sherry Butts for at least 2 years.
Here are the tasting notes. I didn't note down the mouthfeel unfortunately, but it is safe to say that they were all robust and luscious whiskies.
Lychee Liqueur Finish (55%)
Aged 4 years in bourbon casks before being moved into lychee liqueur casks for 1 Year. Half the lychee liqueur casks are ex-bourbon and half, ex-sherry.
Lychee apparent on the nose, a dry sweetness, malty and tropical
Lychee really explodes on the palate, followed by tropical fruit notes and baking spices and wood
Medium length as the lychee fades to leave spices and oakiness
Plum Liqueur Finish (54%)
Aged 4-5 years in bourbon casks before being moved into plum liqueur casks for 1 year. Half the plum liqueur casks were ex-bourbon and half, virgin american oak.
Gorgeous thick nose, sweet, wood spices with a hint of mint sourness
The palate is sweeter than the nose suggested, with almost a sour cough syrup element coupled with loads of spices
Long, syrupy, oaky and slightly sour
Orange Brandy Finish (55%)
Aged 4 years in bourbon casks before being moved into orange brandy casks for 2 years. The orange brandy casks were ex-bourbon.Then married with whisky from bourbon and sherry casks for 1 year.
Very bright and lively unlike the others. Citrus, orange and light spices
Orange cream biscuits, light spices. Very nice balance to this whisky
The lightness gives way to a surprising amount of spiciness and dried orange peels
Black Queen Wine Finish (56%)
Aged 4 years in bourbon casks before being moved into black queen wine casks for 1 year. Black queen is a grape varietal.
Treacle (One of the darkest I've seen)
Deep yet subdued sweetness. Luscious, rich dark fruits.
Strong wood tannins coupled with rich dried fruits. Loads of dark spices mingle beautifully with the fruit and oak in this dram.
Long, thick treacly jammy finish with the spices and oak for balance. Lovely dram.
Some interesting facts for my fellow whisky geeks out there....
Malt is imported from Scotland through the ports of Keelung and Taichung
Milling is done in-house
Malted barley is imported every month from Scotland. There 3 Grain Silos which hold 50,000 kilos each. Each tank finishes in a week with 2500 kilos being used per mash
The peated malt is also from Scotland, with the peat coming from the North East of Scotland
They use a 4 roller mill - First 2 rollers are to grind down the grain and the second 2 rollers are to control the size and proportion of the grist. The ratio is the same as most Scotch distilleries - 70 middles : 20 flour :10 husk
A semi lauter tun is used to yield a very sweet wort. Three waters are employed – 62° C, 75°C and 80/82°C (Higher temperature in winter). Only first 2 waters are taken forward as the wort
There are 4 stills in total - 3 from Forsyths and 1 from Frilli
Relatively long distillation runs of 8 to 10 hours
Angel’s share – 5-6%
I would like to thank Mr. Chung and Mr. Yu 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.