Speeding through the Taiwanese countryside, the narrow roads drop sharply into paddy fields on either side. Jutting up from pools of gently swaying rice are rows of faux chateaux; romantic holiday accommodation, decorated with finials and love hearts, the kitschy simulacra of Disney palaces.
This surreal landscape is the last place you would expect to find the makers of some of the world’s best whiskies, but this is the home of Kavalan, the multi-award winning Taiwanese distillery that takes a blowtorch to your preconceptions.
From 1947 until Taiwan was admitted to the World Trade Organisation in 2002, spirits were produced under a state monopoly. When regulations were relaxed, Kavalan’s parent company, King Car Group, moved quickly to establish a distillery.
The production facility, opened in 2005, was built in just nine months on the site of their existing water bottling plant in Yilan District, about an hour south-east of Taipei. Although there was an excellent source of water, from the Hsuehshan (Snow Mountain) Range, the other elements had to be imported; the barley and stills from Scotland, the Bourbon, Sherry, and Fino casks from elsewhere. The sub-tropical climate poses particular challenges, in terms of the greater proportion of the product lost through evaporation, but it also accelerates the aging process.
Kavalan first caught the attention of British aficionados back in 2010, just two years after the release of its first whisky. In a blind taste test, arranged by a newspaper to celebrate Burns Night, it triumphed over more established Scottish brands. Subsequent success in international competitions, where it has stacked up more than 220 gold awards, have confirmed this wasn’t just luck.
In 2012, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible named Kavalan’s Solist Fino Sherry Cask the best New World whisky. In 2015, the World Whiskies Awards named Kavalan’s Solist Vinho Barrique the “World’s Best Single Malt Whisky”, and last year it named Kavalan’s Solist Amontillado the “World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt”.
As craft spirits writer Brad Japhe explains, “Kavalan’s whiskies display a degree of elegance and complexity that you’d never expect of spirit that’s matured on the younger side of a decade. Across the board, its range testifies to the notion that age is nothing more than a number.”
And like anything that involves this much craftsmanship, Kavalan whiskies don’t come cheap. You can pick up the entry-level single malt for £60, but prices rise exponentially for the more refined bottles, with The Whisky Exchange charging £460 for the Solist Pedro Ximenez Cask.
Howard Chang is the marketing director of Edrington in Taiwan. The Scottish-owned spirits giant is the island’s second largest importer of Scotch, with a portfolio including blended whiskies such as Cutty Sark and The Famous Grouse, as well as single malts including The Macallan and Highland Park. Its office in central Taipei is in the same building as the UK’s unofficial embassy (to have an official embassy would incur the wrath of the Chinese government, which insists Taiwan is one of its territories), so I dropped by to chat about Taiwan’s obsession with whisky.
And “obsession” is not too strong a word, because despite its population of just 23.5m, Taiwan is the fourth largest export market for Scottish whisky (by value). Chang explains that whisky is an important lubricant in Taiwanese business culture, and that it’s mostly drunk straight, sometimes with water on the side. Having recently visited Japan, where salarymen favour their whisky in a long glass over ice with about three-quarters soda water, I ask him if such highballs are popular in Taiwan. He matter-of-factly says, “No, they would take too long to get you drunk.”
Chang says the Taiwanese are more ambivalent about their home-grown product. Kavalan has established shops in cities around the island, determined to develop local demand, but while the product is a source of national pride, he says it’s too expensive for most Taiwanese, especially when they can buy imported products that many instinctively regard as more “authentic”.
Indeed, market research carried out for Bacardi – owners of the Scottish whisky producer Dewar’s – suggests that Taiwan has strong potential for growth in Scotch consumption, with relatively wealthy consumers increasingly interested in rare or aged single malts and blends. This is good news for whisky fans in the rest of the world, because despite Kavalan’s recent moves to expand production, it can struggle to keep up with the demand from its growing band of international devotees.
An unexpected beneficiary of the sudden interest in Taiwanese whisky has been the former monopoly spirits producer, the state-owned Taiwan Tobacco and Liquors, which has produced Omar Whisky from its distillery in Nantou District since 2008.
On arrival at the vast industrial estate where the distillery is based, I was ushered into a conference centre and seated in a plush board room, where the lights were dimmed for a remarkable corporate video. Whisky, it transpires, is just a small part of the sprawling King Car empire, which includes logistics, domestic cleaning products, bio-medical research, shrimp farms, a coffee chain, and pretty much everything else except the automobile manufacturing the group’s name implies, (“King Car” is apparently a Chinese pun alluding to wealth). After the video I step back out into the heat and drizzle, where a covered walkway lined by piles of whisky barrels and incongruous palm trees leads towards the distillery itself.
Windows in the side of a building allow visitors to witness one of the most important steps in Kavalan’s production process, as workers set about shaving, toasting and charring barrels. This last step is visually arresting, as billowing flames fade to a smouldering circle. It’s like looking into the eye of Sauron. In the distillery itself, visitors are able to observe the whisky-making process from beginning to end.
The site receives around 10,000 visitors a day, with English-language tours at 10:30 and 14:30, but these must be booked a week in advance. Perhaps taking a cue from the fairytale aesthetic of neighbouring bed and breakfasts, the large grey visitors’ centre styles itself as a “Spirit Castle”.
I retired to the mezzanine to sample some of the whiskies: the classic single malt, which is light and smooth, with butterscotch, and a hint of marzipan; the ex-Bourbon cask, which tastes of vanilla and white pepper, and has an intense burn; and the 2016 World Whiskies Award winning Amontillado, which is fruity and inscrutable. Each very different, but each assertively “Kavalan”.
During the factory tour, visitors can see column stills, which are not currently used in the production of Kavalan whisky. But loathe to leave them inactive, the company is now considering moving into the burgeoning market for gin. Given the flair that Kavalan has shown with whisky, and the distinctive range of botanicals Taiwan can offer, such as teas and exotic fruits, don’t be surprised if soon you find the brand elbowing its way into your G&T.
Simon Thomson is a regular contributor to City A.M.