Jan 13, 2022
YOU’D BE FORGIVEN FOR not expecting a great deal in terms of quality, or range, of domestically produced alcohol from a sub-tropical island in the Pacific. Particularly one that’s earthquake-prone, has high humidity, a mountainous interior, and a coastline occasionally battered by errant typhoons. Yet with these odds stacked against it, Taiwan has made its mark on the world stage, gaining ardent followers and winning gold-standard awards for beer, scotch, and now gin.
The jewel in the crown for the Taiwanese alcohol industry is Kavalan Distillery, in Yilan on the northeast coast, about an hour from Taipei. This region is famed for its pure water, fertile soil and has some of Taiwan’s most picturesque mountains as a distant backdrop.
Kavalan Distillery is responsible for putting Taiwanese whisky on the map—it’s the reason Taiwan is now officially recognized as a whisky-producing (no “e”) region, alongside Scotland and Japan—and they took home an unprecedented number of awards at the most recent International Wine & Spirits Awards. So it should be little surprise that the Kavalan foray into gin has again produced world-class and award-winning results. This is due as much to their experience as to the unique ingredients the island offers.
Using 100-percent natural ingredients and extracts, Kavalan gin is Taiwanese through and through. It has a luxuriously mellow mouth-feel, full-bodied (due to the triple-distilling process), has rich layers of fruitiness and delicious aromatic complexity. I also found it smooth, soft, warming, and with a pleasant lingering aftertaste. The fruit notes were entirely unexpected, but an absolute highlight. Unlike any other gin I’ve tried.
I wanted to know how they did it—and maybe have an excuse to sample more of the sweet stuff—so I stole Kavalan’s chief chemist and senior blender, Zerose Yang, away from his beloved stills long enough for a quick chat.
T+L: Why did you decide to produce gin?
ZY: In 2008, we installed four sets of German stills to produce single-malt whisky. However, we found these German stills can be perfect for producing clear spirits at a larger scale. We decided to carry out our research and development on the base spirits, botanical extracts, and gin recipes. In 2018, we officially started producing Kavalan Gin.
We’ve taken a different path to several other distilleries that have launched a gin product before they launch their whisky product. At Kavalan Distillery, our original and ongoing purpose is to produce world-class single-malt whisky, but we now also produce gin!
T+L: How did you adapt from making whisky to gin? And are you using different master distillers?
ZY: We are using the same distilling team. The process of making our gin is the same as producing our whisky, all except for distillation. We mill barley, then carry out mashing and fermentation. We distill it three times in the German stills and then blend the spirits with botanical extracts.
T+L: How did you decide on the Kavalan gin recipe? Can you tell us what’s in it?
ZY: We chose a mix of botanical extracts that reflect Yilan and Taiwan. Yilan is famous for its zesty kumquats and sweet red-flesh guavas. And Taiwanese star fruit is succulent, flavorsome, and grown across Taiwan.
The 6 botanical extracts used:
- Juniper berries – the primary source of gin flavor bringing greater freshness
- Coriander – for enhancing notes and ending off citrus aromas
- Aniseed – intensifying licorice and sweetness in the background
- Kumquat peel – adds a refreshing sour taste balanced with sweetness
- Dried red guava – unique fruity sweetness and musky aroma
- Dried star fruit – to stimulate your appetite
T+L: Many gins are being created these days. Why is Kavalan’s unique?
ZY: There are several reasons: the pure waters from Snow Mountain’s ancient springs, the 100-percent malted barley—triple-distilled to create a creamy texture and a full-body—plus the all-natural ingredients and extracts. Add to that the experience of our team and the unique blend of botanicals and you have a gin of remarkable quality and taste.
When you live on an island that’s rocked by sporadic earthquakes and has to deal with the odd inbound typhoon, it’s nice to be able to reach for a quality drink. And it tastes even better when you don’t have to deal with those kinds of distractions!
All photos courtesy of Kavalan Distillery.