The Rise of Taiwanese WhiskyBy George Koutsakis
Before the turn of the millennium, the focus of the whisky industry remained in countries with traditions, roots and a history of production. Today however, it’s hard to say which region will board the whisky-making train next.
When it comes to Asian whisky, Japan is the one typically in the spotlight. But Asia is vast, and has much more to offer when it comes to whisky [see Indian whisky]. Travel down through the East China Sea, to the island nation of Taiwan, and discover a whisky culture you’ve never experienced before. Few countries have reached the fame that Taiwanese whisky enjoys today, and none within such a short period of time.
INTRODUCING KING CAR DISTILLERY
As Yamazaki led Japanese whisky to global fame, so has Kavalan come to define Taiwanese whisky. Owned by the huge King Car Group, the King Car Distillery where Kavalan is produced, is the realization of a dream. Founder, Lee Tien-Tsai, always wanted to venture in whisky production. Yet, strict regulations in Taiwan held him back. At least it did until 2002. Taiwan became part of the World Trade Organization shortly after and this allowed Lee to proceed.
Kavalan Distillery / Photo Credit: Connie
An hour’s drive from the capital of Taipei, the King Car Distillery stands tall, looking more like a factory than a distillery. Production kicked off in 2006 with the first expression dropping two years later, in 2008.
At first, the whisky world was curious, but skeptical, upon seeing bottles at spirit events and whisky gatherings.
Then in 2012, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible named Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask the New World Whisky of the Year. The whisky world’s skepticism quickly turned into genuine interest.
Three years later, at the World Whiskies Awards, Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique topped the list as the World’s Best Single Malt. And with that, the whisky world was all in.
QUICK MATURATION = QUICK SUCCESS
Through all of this you might find yourself asking this question: How has Kavalan become so successful in just 11 years of production? It can’t yet release a staple 12 year-old single malt. The three biggest factors in the brand’s success included: huge funding from the King Car group; expert knowledge from late consultant and distiller Dr. Jim Swan, who passed away in 2017; and the skill of the highly talented master blender, Ian Chang.
Kavalan Distillery Barrels / Photo Credit: Photo Baron
Yet, no amount of funding and expertise can make the whisky in the barrels mature faster. The Taiwanese climate takes care of that. The heat in the region is said to greatly accelerate the maturation process, accomplishing in four years what other, cooler countries can do in ten.
“At Kavalan, it is maturity redefined,” explains Chang. “The subtropical environment accelerates the maturation of new make spirit, ensuring a richer, more complex drop in terms of body.”
While the increased heat helps the whisky mature faster, it’s a double-edged sword. The cost is a huge 12-15% angel’s share yearly, compared to Scotland’s 2% loss. For this reason, it helps that King Car’s whisky production capacity amounts to over 9 million liters of alcohol per year. This is on par with many of the world’s largest and most famous distilleries.
DEMAND, AND PRICES, RISE
Combine the quick maturation, large angel’s share loss, and huge capacity, and one can better understand Kavalan’s success. However, this loss in angel’s share has aided in driving bottle prices up. Today, Kavalan bottlings rival the price tags of the most sought-after Scotch and Japanese whisky bottlings—bottles which are often decades older.
Kavalan Distillery Tasting / Photo Credit: Connie
While Kavalan booms both domestically and globally, Taiwan’s second distillery, Nantou, is also growing. Founded in 2008, their impressive range of Omar single malts has been turning quite a few heads in the industry.
As one of the largest Scotch-importing markets in the world, the Taiwanese now get to enjoy high-quality whisky from their homeland. After all, Taiwanese culture sees the population chugging strong, straight liquor without second thought.
Creating primarily single malts, Kavalan and Omar are putting quality first. The Kavalan Solist series consists of single cask releases aged in an abundance of exotic casks. The Kavalan Classic and Concertmaster are single malts comprising a variety of vintages.
“People tend to judge the quality based on its age—that’s not always correct,” King Car CEO Lee Yu-Ting tells the South China Morning Post. “Taiwan is the new player in the whisky world.”
Having surpassed the restrictions of lengthy maturation periods, what’s left to hinder the rise of Taiwanese whisky?