Kavalan: The Rise of Asian Whisky

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Many of you might know the finesse and quality of Japanese whisky but few people might have heard of Taiwanese whisky before. It seems that as more and more Asians are getting accustomed to whisky apart from the usual blends like Chivas and Johnnie Walker, Asian producers too have jumped on the bandwagon to meet the growing demand from this group of discerning palates.

The story of Kavalan is simple. The dream of one man to produce a whisky the Taiwanese can call their own. The Kavalan distillery is the brainchild of Mr Tsien-Tsai Lee, founder of the King Car Group which hahas over 30 years of experience in the Food and Beverage industry.

Kavalan is named after the indigenous aborigines people of Taiwan that used to occupy the fertile Kabalan Plains of Yilan County which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. The distillery itself is relatively new, born only in 2002 and releasing its first whisky in 2006.

If you have been to Taiwan during the summer months, you will know that the weather can get really hot and humid which speeds up the process of maturation. This explains why their whisky only needed to spend 4 years in the cask compared to the 10 or 12 years commonly seen in scotch whisky. Accompanying the hot ambient temperature is also a larger angel’s share, or the percentage of whisky loss to evaporation every year. So if you think about it, maturing for longer periods would not be economically feasible for the distillery.

I always believe that whisky will take on a certain characteristic of the area in which it was produced. I had the opportunity to try 3 different samplings of Kavalan  and I must say that it is surprisingly good for such a new distillery. There is definitely a more tropical fruitish note to their whiskies which makes it really unique. One taste that continually pops up is mangoes.

Taiwan is home to another whisky producer, Nantou distillery located at the mountainous central highlands region of Taiwan. Taiwan is famous for its 高山茶 (literally translated as high-mountain tea) and Nantou sits squarely at the congregations of these mountains making it renowned for its tea as well.

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Funny thing is, you can see the TTL logo on the packaging and bottle. TTL is the Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Corporation, a giant state-owned behemoth. Surprisingly though, they are quite experimental in their whisky making. As I was walking to the bar one day, I met this Taiwanese stranger who offered me a dram of this OMAR Lychee Cask-Strength Whisky. Lychee, if you haven’t already known, is a very fruit native to Asia with an extremely floral aroma. Likewise, for the Japanese Hibiki which is aged in umeshu or plum liqueur barrels, OMAR was aged in lychee liqueur barrels. Taste-wise, upfront sweetness, nice floral undertones and that unmistakable lychee flavour.

Recently, Amrut has released another Asian-inspired whisky. The Amrut Naraangi was aged in barrels that previously held orange peel liqueur. Hope to see more Asian-Cask aging or finishes in the future. Considering the long tradition of distillation and drinking in Asia, I say that we have barely scratched the surface as to the cask aging and techniques that can be transferred to good ol’ scotch. As the globalization of whisky spreads, blending the East and West together, it is indeed an exciting new era for whisky.

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