Aug 6, 2019
Taiwan might not be the first locale that comes to mind when speaking of whisky. But Duncan Forgan seeks out the water of life here, and finds its single-malt expressions maturing mighty finely.
“Raining again,” my driver mutters. He’s steering over a summit and down towards Yilan County in the notoriously damp northeast of Taiwan. The refrain is all too familiar—to me and to every other Scot with a penchant for the occasional whisky odyssey. I’ve heard the same words grumbled in similar circumstances while battling through the drizzle in single-malt heartlands such as Islay and Speyside.
And as the citadel-like hulk of the Kavalan Distillery emerges through the mist, I half expect to see some Highland cows chowing down on the sodden lawn and a lone bagpiper striking up a mournful air. But while the dreich conditions and world-beating drops falling here may call back to the land of my forefathers, I’m soon to discover that Kavalan is a very Asian success story.
When a whisky from Taiwan was named the globe’s top single malt in 2015 it came as a shock to many. For years, it was practically a given that the best single malts were from Scotland: the birthplace and spiritual home of the so-called “water of life.” Competition from upstarts in Japan, the U.S. and elsewhere has leveled the playing field of late.
Even so, the triumph of Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique—a smooth number hailed by judges for its “sweet, pruney” flavors—was a bolt from the blue. With whisky being one of my proud, but fundamentally underachieving, nation’s claims to fame, I considered this encroachment as an affront before visiting Taiwan.
How, after all, could a brand that was established after the turn of the millennium be turning out bottles to rival venerable Scottish stalwarts such as Laphroig and Glenfiddich?
But as I sample a series of silky-smooth malts with fruity floral tones in the distillery tasting room, I find my skepticism evaporating like Kavalan’s hefty “angel’s share”—the volume of liquid lost during the accelerated maturation process.
“The subtropical climate in Yilan is a huge factor in deciding the character of our single malts,” says Ian Chang, Kavalan’s master distiller. “It enables us to develop a rich and complex whisky in just a few years. It’s not just the heat of Yilan’s summer that causes the accelerated maturation and the smoother, softer finish, but also the cold Siberian winds in winter, which maximize the process of oxidation. “Yilan happens to be the first place in Taiwan where the Siberian winds hit, making it the best place on the island to make whisky.”
The distillery’s plum location was determined by design rather than accident. In fact, the remarkable rise of Kavalan is testament to owner Tien-Tsai Lee’s painstaking eye for detail. For years Lee, managing director of the conglomerate that produces Kavalan, dreamed of producing whiskies that could hold their own on the global stage. In 2002, his wish was granted when Taiwanese authorities allowed private companies such as his to manufacture liquor, previously a state-controlled concern.
Lee cut no corners in achieving his goal. Little expense was spared when constructing the giant distillery. Stills were imported from Scotland while premium wine, port, sherry and bourbon casks were sourced from Spain, Kentucky and Portugal. Chang, who studied food technology in England, was sent back to the U.K.—this time to Scotland—to immerse himself in the distilling process. He was mentored, meanwhile, by the late Dr. Jim Swan, one of the industry’s leading experts on wood management who Chang describes as the “Einstein of whisky.”
ARRIVING AT KAVALAN, the distillery thrums with the kind of activity and invention often associated with this most industrious of islands. Obsessive-compulsive tendencies, no doubt, have played a part in the elevation of the brand, but hard work has been a factor, too. In the re-charring room, someone is blowtorching the inside of a freshly shaved barrel, the flames whipping out like a mini inferno from the blackened receptacle. It’s part of a reconditioning process where casks are shaved, then toasted, then charred to remove any unwanted flavors.
Elsewhere, things are equally dynamic. In the main building where the whisky is made, matured and tasted, a handful of the one-million-plus visitors who arrive here every year are sniffing malted barley and gazing in awe at the giant copper stills. As tourists gawp from the hallways above, workers manning the maturation warehouse carefully survey the barrels, which are stacked at different heights according to vintage and stage of maturation.
It’s all a bit more organized than Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Nevertheless, the alchemy created here is every bit as compelling as that of the fantastical laboratory at the heart of Roald Dahl’s classic book. There are no supernatural secrets to the brand’s success, however, according to Chang.
“We’ve won many awards and earned a reputation, but it has been hard earned,” he says. “Ten years ago, people still believed the idea of Kavalan was impossible because there was no other distillery operating in a climate close to ours. So there was a period in the early years when all we had was a commitment to making this first Taiwanese whisky a success, together with all the hard work and persistence to pull us through.”
Taiwan’s whisky-drinking tradition is nothing new. Business lunches have long been lubricated by multiple drams. In 2015, a bit surprisingly, the country ranked as the fourth largest market by value for Scotch behind the U.S., France and Singapore, according to the Scotch Whisky Association.
The emergence of Kavalan and of a smattering of specialist whisky bars in Taipei and other Taiwanese cities such as Tainan and Hualien, though, indicate that drinkers on the island are moving away from the “bottoms up” culture of throwing back hard liquor to a more sophisticated segment of savvy connoisseurs. I learn more about this evolution over drinks at Ziga Ziga, a sleek bar/restaurant at the Grand Hyatt Taipei, my palatial digs in the island’s capital. The venue uses Kavalan expressions (varieties) as a base for all its whisky cocktails. Young professionals and moneyed tourists perusing the drinks menu, meanwhile, belie the popular conception of hard-drinking businessmen loosening their ties and knocking back a bottle of Johnnie Walker at a nearby karaoke lounge.
“Whisky represents a certain level of social sophistication,” explains Amanda Kuo, assistant beverage manager at the hotel as we sup on whisky sours. “Even in today’s declining market, whisky brands still invest heavily in marketing and consistently rank among the top 10 advertisers on the island.”
There are few better places in Taiwan to further your whisky education than at L’Arriere Cour, one of the capital’s longest serving whisky bars. Hidden down a secluded alley, the veteran bar is heaven for single-malt lovers with more than 40 labels to choose from including all the homegrown drops. Sharply dressed barmen offer recommendations curated to your taste.
“I think it’s fantastic that Taiwan is producing such high-quality single malts,” says manager Steven Lin. “But this country has long been one of the largest single malt markets in the world. I think that this knowledge and appreciation has helped us become excellent producers—as well as consumers.”
Taiwan now even has a second distillery, Nantou, towards the center of the island. Its Omar range of single malts may not yet have achieved the worldwide fame Kavalan’s impressions have, but already Taipei whisky buffs are raving about their earthy, fruity flavors. “The Omar whiskies are a little more robust than the ones by Kavalan,” explains Wu’er Kaixi, a prominent Chinese dissident who has lived in exile in Taipei since 1996, as we prop up the bar at long-standing specialist whisky venue MOD Public Bar. We’re here for a tasting session of various Taiwanese bottles. “There’s a little more in the way of punchy fruit notes in there, whereas Kavalan whiskies—even the strongest ones—are easier to drink.”
The bar offers a lively atmosphere, friendly service and an alternative music soundtrack that goes heavy on Britpop from the 1990s. There’s a hefty selection of bottles to choose from and the bartenders—who, like at L’Arriere Cour, are resplendent in waistcoats and ties—will mix you a potent cocktail if neat isn’t your thing.
As I polish off my sixth glass of the evening before deciding to exit into the cool of the autumn night, I can’t help thinking that this “go down easy” adage could be applied to all the single malts I’ve sampled on my journey around Taiwan.
Overall, I’m still more in thrall to my homeland: it’s hard to top the smoky, spiciness of a Talisker 18-year-old or the complex, peat notes of a Lagavulin 16. But even the most churlish Scotsman would admit that the Taiwanese segment is maturing quite nicely. This is definitely an island doing a sterling job of tapping into the source when it comes to the water of life.
Opened in 1990, this city fixture still delivers top-notch service and style, thanks to a landmark renovation in 2014 that saw all of the 850 guestrooms and suites stripped back to their concrete beginnings, redesigned and rebuilt. Opt for one of the apartment-sized Grand Executive View Suites for panoramic views across the city. hyatt.com; rooms from US$270 per night.
Distillery tours are free of charge. Whisky tastings cost NT $400 and allow customers to taste four different Kavalan “expressions,” or varieties. You can also blend and personalize your own whisky by taking a DIY class, which costs NT $1,500.