How Taiwan Became a World-Class Whisky Region
The next time you pour a dram, skip the Scotch and try this whisky instead
Scotland, Ireland and Kentucky are typically first to mind when people think of the top whisk(e)y-producing regions in the world. In recent years, Japan has also emerged as one of the leading players, with lauded distilleries like Nikka and Suntory. But lately, there’s another Asian player in the mix that’s shaking things up and earning plenty of accolades along the way.
Kavalan was undoubtedly a dark horse when it first entered the industry. The label falls under the impressive umbrella of brands from Taiwan’s massive King Car Group (which produces a dizzying array of consumer goods, including bug repellants, frozen noodles, orchids, canned coffee and more). Critics were skeptical―albeit curious―when the distillery first began operation in 2005. Shortly after, the brand introduced its first single malt whisky release, and the accolades quickly began to pile up.
On Scotland’s famed Burns Night in 2010, Kavalan beat out its Scottish and English competitors in a blind whisky tasting. In 2012, its Solist Fino Sherry Cask was named the best "New World Whisky of the Year." Three years later, the Solist Vinho Barrique expression was named the "World’s Best Single Malt Whisky" by the World Whiskies Awards; the recognition has only continued pouring in ever since. In roughly a decade, a newcomer dominated a 1,000-year-old industry.
Critics aren’t the only ones who adore the brand—Kavalan has legions of loyal consumers the world over who can’t get enough of Taiwan’s first and only whisky label. So what exactly sets the spirit apart from its long list of international opponents? A lot of it comes down to carving out a new, albeit familiar, niche.
"Kavalan offers a nice, creamy, oily character that’s very different when you compare our whisky to that of Scotland or Japan," Ian Chang, Master Distiller at Kavalan Whisky, says. Experimentation and innovation are also key ingredients in the brand’s recipe for success. Additionally, the flavor profiles highlight the country’s best local ingredients and unique produce. "We are more about subtropical fruits like mango and indiginous apples and pineapples," Chang says.
When the King Car Group decided to branch into the whisky industry, they chose to set up shop with a state-of-the-art distillery in Yilan County (about an hour’s drive from Taipei). The lush region’s subtropical climate comes with thick humidity and temperatures that can soar close to 100 degrees. But what some originally considered to be an obstacle actually proved to be one of Kavalan’s strongest assets.
"County Yilan is considered the Speyside of Taiwan because of the environment and our natural resources," Chang says. "We have a hot climate, which is great for color formation in whisky," he continues. "All Kavalan expressions are caramel-free, unlike some other distilleries, so it’s all natural colors."
Additionally, the Taiwanese heat plays an integral role in the vital aging process, accelerating the rate of interaction between the spirit and its wood barrels. This fast-forwards the maturation period and creates a spirit that tastes smooth, refined and wise beyond its years—proving that an age statement plastered on a bottle isn’t always the best indicator of a high quality whisky.
Kavalan continues to carve its path as a global leader in this ever-growing category. Hotaling & Co. is the exclusive US importer and there are currently 15 expressions available in the stateside. Consumers curious for a taste can pick up a bottle at most major liquor distributors, or sip a dram at many bars and restaurants across the country.