In this review I am going to talk about three Single Malt whiskies from the Kavalan Distillery in Taiwan…….
Whisky from Taiwan??
Okay, so it is quite possible that you’ve not heard of Kavalan before, and that is not completely surprising because Kavalan is a relative newcomer to the US, but believe me, you’re in for quite a treat!
Owned by privately-held Taiwanese conglomerate King Car, Kavalan is the one and only Taiwanese whisky distillery. Located in Yilan, the distillery sits along the foothills of the Snowy Mountains range, about an hour from Taipei. Construction of the distillery was completed in December 2005 and it produced its first spirit in March 2006. The first releases of Kavalan whisky hit the market in 2008.
In January 2010, one of the distillery’s products caused a stir by beating three Scotch whiskies and one English whisky in a blind tasting organised in Leith, Scotland, to celebrate Burns Night.
When production first started, the distillery produced approximately three million bottles a year, but increased its output with additional pot stills and now production runs nearly nine million bottles a year, and it not yet running at full capacity. The massive complex includes a visitor center, a 600-seat café, and a five-storey maturation warehouse with about 46,000 casks that are tied together because of the high risk of earthquakes in the region. The distillery also hosts more than one million visitors each year….more than the combined number of visitors to all of Scotland’s distilleries!
Even as a new whisky-maker and distillery, Kavalan has already received numerous accolades. The distillery was named by Whisky Magazine as the World Icons of Whisky “Whisky Visitor Attraction of the Year” for 2011, and its whiskies have won several awards, such as its Vinho Barrique expression being named World’s Best Single Malt Whisky in 2015 by World Whiskies Awards. An impressive start!
Much of Kavalan’s success is attributable to Ian Chang, Kavalan’s Master Blender. Chang was educated in the UK, graduating from Reading University with a degree in Food Technology, Flavours and Aroma, and worked with industry expert and consultant Dr. Jim Swan to develop Kavalan.
Since joining Kavalan in 2005 as master blender, Chang has added several expanded responsibilities within the organization, also serving as the whisky producer’s brand ambassador, its director of global business development, and the head of R&D.
In a 2013 interview with The Drinks Report (www.thedrinksreport.com), Chang talks about Kavalan whisky,
““It is incredibly smooth, mellow and creamy. Above all, the distillery harnesses the heat of the Taiwanese summer to extract the wood and create a magical effect – a natural rich colour. The interaction of the new make and oak in high temperate conditions makes Kavalan Classic single malt whisky extraordinary. At Kavalan, we like to think that it is ‘maturation redefined’!”
To make its whisky, Kavalan imports its malted barley from Northern Europe, Scotland and Scandinavia, and sources its water from springs emanating in the adjacent Snowy Mountains, but it is the temperature in Taiwan that potentially has the most significant impact on its whiskies.
In Scotland, where whisky is traditionally matured in cool, damp warehouses with moderate temperatures and relative low humidity, the “Angel’s Share” – the loss through evaporation – is a loss of alcohol, resulting in a drop in the alcohol by volume (abv).
Taiwan, on the other hand, has much higher average temperatures as well as higher relative humidity levels. Losses during maturation at Kavalan are water – at a rate approaching 10%-15% per year – meaning that the abv content increases. To combat the high heat and humidity of Taiwan, the spirit vapors are cooled using both tube condensers and sub-coolers. The higher temperatures, and the broad temperature swings experienced at Kavalan, also mean that there is greater interaction with the oak casks. Due to these temperature and evaporation considerations, Kavalan whisky runs the risk of becoming too “oaky” with the extended duration of maturation commonly associated with Scotch whisky and current releases are running in the 6-8 year range.
Kavalan Solist Releases
In 2010, Kavalan began releasing the Solist line, a range of single cask, cask strength expressions aged in different woods – to date they have used casks that previously held Sherry, Fino Sherry, ex-Bourbon, and Vinho Barrique, a cask that previously held both red and white wine.
Technically, the Solist whiskies are “No Age Statement” releases because the labels do not include a formal age statement; HOWEVER, Kavalan does disclose enough information to determine the approximate age. On each Solist label Kavalan provides a cask number that tells you the year the whisky was distilled. The coding for the casks starts with a letter to denote the cask style (B-ex-Bourbon, S-Sherry, and W-Vinho Barrique) followed by a series of numbers, the first two indicating the year distilled.
For example, this ex-Bourbon sample is from Cask No. B090229022A, so we know that the whisky was put into cask in 2009. Based on when the whisky was purchased, in this case 2014, we can estimate that the whisky in this particular bottle is approximately 5 years old. (Since there is no bottling date on the label or in a stamp, the approximation is as close as one can get.)
As long as these whiskies continue to move off the shelves quickly, the age can be estimated reasonably closely; however, if sales slow down, and bottles sit on the shelves for longer periods, age estimates will become more difficult to establish. The labels also tell you which bottle number and how many bottles were in the outturn of the particular cask, which helps determine cask type/size. While the available information is not comprehensive, it is good information and appreciated!
One interesting “oddity” is that the label for the Solist releases in the US is different than the labels on bottles shipped to other countries. On the US bottles, you will notice that the “Solist” name does not appear, while for bottles destined for Asia, Europe, Scandinavia and other regions, Solist is very prominently displayed.
Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon Cask,Cask No. B090929022A, Distilled 2009, Bottle 165 of 182, 57.8% abv ($160 Dallas Fine Wine & Spirits).
Color: Pale gold
Nose: Starts with an initially strong note of aniseed, then I get cereals and grains, but showing up as buttered toast, banana bread. The nose has loads of warm vanilla, some coconut milk, and a hint of oak spice with a soft white pepperiness.
Taste: A sweet, but not cloying arrival. As with the nose, there is a lot of vanilla, but I also get lime juice, butter cream, growing notes of ripe white fruits, and a hint of white chocolate. Tasted neat, this is a tad sharp and hot on the palate, but just a few drops of water dissipates the sharpness. After a few moments, as the water integrates, it brings out notes of strawberry, vanilla custard, and more coconut. This has a very creamy, enjoyable mouthfeel.
Finish: Full notes of sweet vanilla, softly spiced fruits, and delicate hints of oak tannins adding just a delicate, complementary bitterness at the end.
Overall: Quite simply, just another really good Kavalan whisky. Rich and vibrant aromas and flavors, beautiful mouthfeel. We tasted several great whiskies this evening and this one ranked in the top three of the evening for many of us. Rating: 90
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique Cask, Cask No. W09112761A, Distilled 2009, Bottle 010 of 211, 57.1% abv ($140 Dallas Fine Wine & Spirits).
Color: Dark Mahogany
Nose: Creamy vanilla, Saigon cinnamon and baking spices, all sorts of ripe berries, red raisins, hints of chocolate. More vanilla, Crème brulee with extra crispy caramelized crust.
Taste: Sweet fruit and vanilla arrival. Berries in cream, plums, vanilla and baking spices. Continues to follow the nose. Great mouthfeel. There is a bit of soft oak tannins that really add nicely to the palate, keeping the vanilla sweetness in check.
Finish: Rich, full of berries and red fruits, vanilla, becomes softly drying.
Overall: This is the second Vinho Barrique cask I’ve sampled and, for me, this was a highlight, showcasing a wide and complex array or aromas and flavors with a great mouth feel. Rating: 89
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask, S081205024, Distilled 2008, Bottle 104 of 505, 58.6% abv ($160 Dallas Fine Wine & Spirits).
Color: Deep ruby red.
Nose: Sherry…..big, big, big sherry notes just fly out of the glass. Both Sweet and Dry sherry, a touch of burnt matches (slightly and not bad), figs, nuts, caramelized figs, warm date bread, plums, raisins.
Taste: Wow! The arrival is full of sweet, rich, big, bold sherry. Dark and dried fruits – the plums, figs, dates, raisins. Brazil nuts and walnuts in chocolate, and beautiful herbal spice notes. The sulphury note from the nose does not seem to transfer to the palate. Like the other two, this one offers another wonderfully rich and creamy mouthfeel.
Finish: Bold, rich, dense and long finish. The flavors stay fresh and last. But this is definitely a desert whisky. Yumm!
Overall: This is the third version of a Solist Sherry Cask that I’ve tried and all three have been uniquely – and quite substantially – different, but all good. The first one I tried was dry, nutty, and spiced. The second was a full-on Sherry Monster, with an immense sweetness and a tremendously rich and dense palate. This third version falls somewhere in the middle. This is a slightly less sweet, nuttier, and more complex version that I really enjoyed. Rating: 88
Certainly the price point of these whiskies puts them into the “luxury purchase” category for most of us, but from a sheer quality of experience and enjoyment perspective, Kavalan has delivered……and delivered exceedingly well. These whiskies are well-made, come in a beautiful, leather-encased container (although I could drop the tube if it would lower the cost!), and offer an exceptional Single Malt whisky. There is a reason these have won so many awards over the last few years. Kudos to Ian Chang and Kavalan for overcoming their environmental challenges to produce such wonderful whiskies!
Distillery: Kavalan (Ka Va Lan)
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Age: No Age Statement (NAS)
ABV: Bourbon 58.7%, Vinho Barrique 57.1%, Sherry 58.6%
Maturation: See above
Price: $140- $160
Availability: Available in the US through specialty retailers. Locally, these can be found at True Spirits in Plano and at Dallas Fine Wine & Spirits. (and likely a few others).
Sample Source: Sorin, Chris