Kavalan: The Rise of Asian Whisky

IMG_20151029_013117_HDR

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.

IMG_20151018_092922

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.

Trip to Yoichi: Birthplace of Nikka Whisky

Masataka Taketsuru. Does that name ring a bell? Maybe you might have heard of Taketsuru before, that famous line of whisky from Nikka. Japanese whisky is currently dominated by two giants, Nikka and Suntory. How then does Masataka Taketsuru fit into this picture? He was the pioneer and the father of Japanese whisky. And did I mentioned, in his quest for the perfect scotch, he left for Scotland as a young man, working in many distilleries to gain the experience needed to start his own distillery in Japan.

Yoichi, nestled in the easterly region of Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest and most northern of the four main island. Its climate was what Masataka Taketsuru felt most comparable to Scotland. My trip to Yoichi Distillery started off in Sapporo, getting to Yoichi was a scenic 30 minutes ride on JR to Otaru, a seaside Japanese town famed for many sushi restaurants. At Otaru, I took a smaller transfer train to Yoichi which was just a 15 minutes ride through mountains and thick forest.

20150617_125149

You know when a town is crazy about whisky when they start selling these

Upon arrival, you immediately know that Yoichi is only dedicated to one thing, and one thing only. Whisky. I remembered that I went on a Wednesday and was surprised by the number of people who visited the distillery. At the main entrance, a kind staff told me that the tour would be self-guided and she handed me a map in English which listed the various places of interest. I was kind of disappointed because I expected the distillery tour to be one that you can actually the entire process of making whisky and the distillery workers in action. Seems like the whole setup is a bit too commercialized and they were just trying to pack as many visitors as possible.

Giant stills which are heated by direct coal fire

Giant stills which are heated by direct coal fire

The distillery tour only allowed us to see the whisky making process behind glass panels and barricades. In my personal opinion, the most interest portion of the tour are the giant copper stills that are heated by direct coal fire where the distillery workers must shovel coal into the furnace every now and then.

Yoichi's ageing warehouses

Yoichi’s ageing warehouses

You are also allowed to visit the aging warehouse, Mashing room, Tun house, blending room and Masataka’s former house. After which you are directed to a museum dedicated to the life of Masataka Taketsuru.

Born to a third-generation Sake brewing family, Masataka was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, he grew fond of the scottish tipple. Before starting Yoichi distillery, he worked for Kotobukiya, the predecessor of Suntory. The President of Kotobukiya at that time sent Masataka packing to Scotland to learn the fine art of scotch-making. During that time, most of the scotch drunk in Japan were poor quality imitations coloured to look like the real thing. The year was 1918, Masataka enrolled in the University of Glasgow and took up lodgings with a local Scottish family. Legend goes that at a Christmas party, Masataka pulled a sixpence from the christmas pudding, foretelling a bright future. His future wife, Rita Cowan pulled a ring which hinted at a future they would have together.

At the Yoichi museum, every corner will be peppered with little stories about the life of Masataka and Rita. You can imagine the parental and cultural objections they faced as a couple back then. Even so, when Masataka returned to Japan, Rita followed and supported her husband wholeheartedly. The testament to how much Rita played a part in helping Masataka and Nikka could be seen in the many buildings honorably named after her in Yoichi.

Yoichi Decade Malts

Yoichi Decade Malts

The Museum also has a paid tasting bar which offers more exotic whiskies compared to the free sampling bar down the road. Of the samples(all 15 ml) I tried, I had the Nikka 1980s(1500 yen), 1990s(700 yen) and 2000s(300 yen) which comprised of malts from that decade and all bottled in 2015. (e.g. the 1980s would contain malts from 1980-1989 meaning the malts are from 35-26 years old). The 1980s and 2000s are my definite pick, the 1990s was a bit of a letdown as they overdid the sherry on that one. I also wanted to try the Taketsuru 25 and the Yoichi Single Cask but the kind bartender told me that Yoichi is currently facing a shortage of stock. It seems that the whole of Japan is caught up in Massan(how Masataka is affectionately called) fever after NHK aired a drama about Masataka and Rita’s life. From August, Yochi will stop selling age-statement Yoichi and Miyagikyo whiskies to allow stocks to replenish.

Opposite the museum is the Single Cask Shop which used to sell Yoichi whisky straight from the cask. However, the shortage of stock means that this shop will be indefinitely closed till further notice. Shame.

Yoichi's free sampling area

Yoichi’s free sampling area

On to the free sampling area, a massive two storey hall with a heck load of tour buses packed outside. Here, you can try the Yochi 10 years old, Nikka apple brandy and Nikka blended whisky all for free. They also offer free Oolong tea and apple juice for the teetotalers out there. Skip right to the Yochi 10, thats the one you’ll want.

At the distillery store, the human traffic there is just madness. Long snaking lines with every one from young guys to old grandmas snapping up every whisky they can find on the shelves. They are all out of Yoichi 10 years to 20 years and Taketsuru 17 and 21. The only distillery edition bottles your left with are the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s and Yoichi 12 Peaty/Salty and Sherry/Sweet. Even for the bottles still on the shelves, not all are available in the larger sizes of 500ml, the 1990s is and Peaty/Salty are only available as 180ml bottles. The distillery store also sells some Yoichi souvenirs like coasters and whisky-infused confectionery and pastries. But I say to hell with that, I WANT my whiskies!

I left the store with six heavy bottles and a lighter wallet. Had a fantastic lunch at the seafood market near the train station. Now if there’s something else you gotta try in Yoich besides whisky, ask for the Yoichi-caught Uni rice bowl at the fish market. I guess it wasn’t such a wasted trip after all

.20150617_153828

On a side note, I applaud Nikka for being forthcoming in the discontinuation of the age-statement Single Malts. I guess there really care about preserving the quality of their product that they chose to forgo selling extra stock right in the middle of a whisky fever. Keep up the good work, hopefully we’ll get to taste more of that lovely dram in the future.

Please read this Nonjatta article for the exact bottlings which are going to be discontinued here.

Glenlivet Nadurra 16 Cask Strength

Sweet! individually hand-wrapped

Sweet! individually hand-wrapped

My first cask-strength whisky that I bought and I drank. Cask-strength whiskies are a different monster altogether. Most cask-strength whiskies are bottled over 50% abv and the Glenlivet Nadurra 16 is no exception.

I remembered asking my friend to help me get it at Changi DFS on his way back from a trip a year ago. It was quite value for money(around $70+ at that time) and I was looking for a higher abv whisky because I was curious to whether it would just kill my taste buds or might it actually taste good.

I revisited this whisky today after a few months break and I’m glad to say that it still packed a punch similar to when I had my very first sip.

Aged 16 years in first-fill ex-bourbon cask and bottled at natural cask strength, meaning no water was added to the whisky to dilute it, the Nadurra (natural in Gaelic) is truly a taste to behold. My bottle was also peppered with little snippets of information such as Batch No. 0712U, bottled at 55.5% abv on 07/12. Apart from the decent packaging, the whisky bottle itself came hand-wrapped in a nice waxed-paper with the George & J.G.Smith Logo.

It is also non-chill filtered, allowing the whisky to retain a fuller body and richer texture by retaining more natural oils from the casks. Normally, whiskies are chill-filtered to prevent them from turning cloudy under low temperatures or when ice is added. Should you want to experiment, place a small glass of Nadurra in the fridge and you will see what I mean.

Now for the tasting.

IMG-20150522-WA0009

Colour: Rich golden honey

Nose: The first whiff brings a distinctive note of oak and vanilla that is reminiscence of bourbon. Really sweet and strong alcohol. Follows with a floral and nutty aroma with a slight hint of apples.

Palate: Upfront vanilla and butterscotch, really chewy and luscious if that can be a word to describe whisky. Moves on to a malty-cereal backbone and finally a burst of tangy green fruits. Pears and green apples.

Finish: Long long finish, at first bitter almond, oak and strong hazelnut. After 3 minutes, the bitterness dissipated and eased onto macadamia, especially when I moved my tongue around my mouth (not kidding here). At the 5 minute mark, something odd. I started tasting raisins.

A truly exceptional dram, unforgettable. If this has to be your first cask-strength whisky, I’d say go for it, all out. The Nadurra is also bottled at a lower 48% abv and sold at Changi DFS for those who prefer something lighter. But why bother when the real deal is right here.

Cheers!

Whisky 101:Great Whisky Regions of Scotland

Terroir.

 A set of special characteristics which whisky, wine or perhaps any agricultural product has that is affected by the climate, geography and geology of the land. I want to share with you the amazing terroir of Scotland and the variety of whisky that comes from this little part of the world. But first, a little back story…..

When I first started my whisky journey, my goal was to wean myself away from the relatively more expensive craft beer drinking sessions that my friends and I had weekly. As I trawled online for a place to purchase a decently priced single-malt whisky, I stumbled on Drinksfellas and I remembered that they had a monthly promotion for the Tullibardine Single Highland Malt 1993 Sherry finish which I purchased for a sick price of 54 bucks (sorry guys, last I checked it was $115). It was a different experience altogether, when compared with the usual Chivas that I normally drank. But one thing that struck me was the label on the bottle ‘Single Highland Malt’. What does that mean?

Tullibardine 1993 Single highland malt sherry wood

   In case you were wondering how it looked

As I went online to further my research, I discovered that whisky too has its own terroir and that the Highlands was one of the main regions in which scotch whisky is categorised under. The Highlands run through the entire central and northerly area of Scotland and comprises of many distilleries scattered throughout. One of the most ubiquitous single malts that you can find stocked in almost all bar shelves is the Glenmorangie which also comes from the Highlands.

Whisky Regions

  The six regions of Scotland, arbitrary of course

Like the Dalwhinnie 15 which is a Diageo classic Highland malt that my Kaki, Chris has written about here. The Scottish Highlands is such a diverse and large region that it is difficult to pin-point an exact characteristic that could be applied to all the distilleries in this region.

For example, Royal Lochnagar, a fruity and floral whisky similar to a Lowland malt, but when compared to a Dalmore, it is a different beast altogether. The Dalmore has a thicker and more full-bodied taste, combined with dark fruits and sherry notes.

A very vague and general rule of thumb is that one can a expect a much fuller body to their whisky when compared with the other regions.

Now before I continue with the other regions in Scotland, I would first like to put up a disclaimer. The separation Scotland into six different whisky regions that I chose is purely arbitrary. Other whisky organisations such as the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) only list five regions and others might include only four regions.

I chose this six regions as there are more things to share about how the difference in climate and geology has on the whisky. As far as I’m concerned, its like drawing borders on a map. In reality, the regions in Scotland are neither separated by man-made fences or walls.

The five regions of Scotland, according to the SWA

     The five regions of Scotland, according to the SWA

On to the next region, Speyside.

The Speyside region is actually part of the Highlands as you can see from the map above. However, there is a reason why Speyside is deserving of a region on its own.

Distilleries congregate along the banks of the River Spey

Distilleries congregate along the banks of the River Spey

As you can see, Speyside really has A LOT of distilleries and. And most of them are built around the ‘sides’ of the River Spey which might be how Speyside got its name. In fact, of the hundred or so distilleries still operating in Scotland, about half of them can be located in Speyside.

The distilleries around the River Spey are famous for producing excellent whiskies. Whisky powerhouses such as Macallan and Glenfarclas are built nearby to harness the excellent waters the river provides.

The Speyside region encompasses so many differing styles and distilleries that once again, geographical distinction is not as important as the distillery itself .

Generally, the whisky produced in the area tend to be of a sweeter dram, lacking in or totally devoid of peat and smoky flavours.

One of my favourite value-for-money drams is the Glenfarclas 105 cask-stength whisky bottled at 60% abv and can be bought at Changi Dfs.  My Kaki Chris abhors it though because he thinks cask strength sherry monster is too strong.

Lowlands single-malt distilleries in green

 Lowlands single-malt distilleries in green

The next up is the Lowlands.

The Lowlands is the region of Scotland closest to England. Currently, the Lowlands only has six operating distilleries in this whole massive region with Bladnoch, Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie leading the pack. (The other three distilleries opened only after the 2000s).

Traditionally, Lowland whiskies are usually distilled thrice(similar to Irish whiskies) compared to double distillation which most other whiskies undergo.

This means that much more trace impurities are removed from the final white spirit leaving a purer distillate that takes on a heavier character from the casks that it was matured in.

Islay, totally surrounded by the Scottish waters

Islay, totally surrounded by the Scottish waters

I’m going to introduce you the region has to be my favourite of the lot. Islay. Pronounced as eye-luh.

Personally, I’m a person who like big, bold and brash flavours. I love my Laksa, I love my stouts and I sure love my chilis. For me, Islay whiskies is a representation of all that, powerful peat, very bold and brash.

If you haven’t known what peat was, peat is the decayed plant and animal matter found in swamps and bogs that have been compressed over thousands of years.

Peat was traditionally used for fuel in Scotland and if you were wondering, much of our haze that Singapore receives are a result of peat fires in Indonesia that could burn on almost indefinitely.

Men hard at work cutting peat

Men hard at work cutting peat bricks

However, when peat is added to the fire when drying the germinated barley or malt, it imparts a smoky aroma that is often a love it or hate it feeling.

I have friends who told me that Islay’s peaty whiskies remind them of the traditional black Chinese medicine drink (not Luo Han Guo but the really bitter stuff), and I also have friends who tell me that it reminds them of eating Lay’s BBQ. I’m guessing that its hard to really explain what the taste is.

If you’re really hardcore and like the fresh hazy air every September when half of Indonesia catches fire, go for the Ardbeg 10($80.70) at Changi DFS which is one of my daily drams.

If you prefer something more balanced with hints of acidity and sweetness, something that could perhaps pass off as liquid Lay’s BBQ, I’d say go for the Lagavulin 16($74++) at Changi DFS which is also one of Diageo’s Classic Malts.

island distillery

  From the north to the south, the island distilleries are scattered throughout

The Island whiskies.

Located off the western coastline of Scotland, this regions is often subsumed under the Highlands. But for the sake of diversity, I shall go into a brief introduction of this region.

There are six main islands in this region of which seven distilleries are located. Of the big names you should know, it might come as a surprise that the Highland Park you often see at DFS is located on the Isle of Orkney and not actually in the Highland mainland itself.

The other big names are Talisker, located on the Isle of Skye which produces a salty, smokier dram. As the Islands are scattered as it is diverse, characteristics also run the gamut from the heathery-sweetness of Highland Park, fruity-citrusy drams of Tobermory to the pepper-peat of Talisker whiskies.

All that said, whiskies from this region do exhibit a slight maritime influence, being especially close to the sea. On a side note, Chris started his journey with a Highland Park 12 (2001) from Changi DFS which I find to be a wonderful whisky for starters. We would love to do a review for it but Chris’s current bottling has gone stale and is sadly, relegated to cocktail duties.

campbeltown

 Once there was thirty, now there are three

Lastly, Campbeltown.

Formerly known as the whisky capital world, there were about 30 distilleries operating during the boom years of the whisky industry back in the 19th century. Sadly, it’s a shadow of its former self with only three operating distilleries, namely Springbank, Glen Scotia and Glengyle.

It just goes to show how fads come and go, even if its 200 years ago. The famous Springbank distillery is also one of the few distiller that produces three brands of whisky with its own character – The triple distilled Hazelburn, peaty Longrow and the namesake Springbank.

In conclusion, it can be said terroir is important in determining what profiles will be imparted to the whisky due to the soil, sea, peat and air which surrounds the various distilleries. However, terroir is not an is all end all, it is just one of the various factors which come into play.

More importantly, many of this distilleries are owned by large drinks conglomerate who want to show diversity in their portfolio regardless of regions. One should not be surprised to see slighty peaty drams coming from Speyside or perhaps a non-peated version of Islay whisky.

Across the globe, the whisky trend is reaching new heights and we can see whisky distilleries from Tasmania to Japan and India all producing a style of whisky so unique to the culture of the people, so adapted to the climate and so different from the scotch that we drink. It challenges us to define what truly is whisky and whether any good can come from this whiskies outside Scotland.

Dive in with an open mind, the rewards are greater than you think.

Cheer!

Whisky 101:What is whisky/whiskey?

In our first blog post, Chris and I would like to first explore the world of whisky/whiskey with our Kakis. But before we delve into that, please bear with us as we tell you our back-story. For the few twenty or so years of our lives, we only knew whisky encompassed Chivas and Johnnie Walker. Vodka was the staple when we were younger as it was cheap, easy to get and very easy to mix with other beverages.

Image-3c

Ahhhh, yes! A bottle of good ol’ Johnnie hits the spot

One day, we decided that enough was enough, it was like eating the same economical beehoon for the past twenty years, some how or another, something has gotta give. We then went online to find out more about what whisky was and we were amazed by how much we were missing out on. And thus everything else was history.

the-sword-in-the-stone

Kinda like how this guy felt

What then is whisky/whiskey? And why the difference in the spelling? Whisky(ey) however it is spelled is basically a distilled spirit. There is a whole long process on how grains such as barley, wheat, corn or whatever is turned into the magically intoxicating stuff that we consume but that’s for another day. I’ll distill (pun intended) how this process takes place- 1) water + grain + cooking = wort (kinda like porridge) 2) wort + yeast + fermentation = weak alcoholic gunk / beer 3) weak alcoholic gunk + distillation = strong white spirit / moonshine 4) strong white spirit + barrels + time = magical brown liquid / whisky

Kinda cheem if you ask me, but heck! A picture is worth a thousand words!

Kinda cheem if you ask me, but heck! A picture is worth a thousand words!

In the past, the brown stuff that we now come to love was called “Uisge Beatha” or water of life by the Scots and Irish. Legend has it that the first drop of whisky was produced by monks who then spread it around the British Isles when they became missionaries. Scotch or scotch whisky is rightly named so because whisky making and drinking has long been associated with the Scottish people.

Take me to church

The monks sure know their stuff

Now, about the spelling. Whisky and whiskey are just about the same brown stuff people drink. The Scots, Canadians and Japanese prefer whisky without the “e” in the middle while the Americans and Irish stick to their ee’s. But besides the spelling, you might have heard about the terms, “blended” and “Single-malts” when used with whisky. Single-malts are whisky which only come from a single distillery in Scotland that uses only malt (germinated barley) in making their whisky. Much like how some wine are labelled as single-estate, similarly you can be sure that a single-malt whisky comes ONLY from that particular distillery made using ONLY pure malt. Of the single-malt whiskies that most Singaporeans should know, Macallan and Glenfiddich should be most familiar to everyone.

rasams-restaurant-sunnyvale-ic-lounge-amrut_indian_malt_whisky

The famous Indian distillery from Bangalore, Amrut

Blended whisky on the other hand are like a Pandora’s box. Blends like Chivas and Johnnie Walker may contain 50 or more different whiskies from different distilleries which you will never know. Also, a high proportion of that blend will come from grain whiskies which are not made from barley but instead come from wheat, corn, rye and many others. That is not to say a blended product is inferior to a single-malt. In fact, blending is an art as the master blender must be really skilled to take 50 different components and marry them to produce a consistent product every single time.

RoyalSalute62_2

You’ll never fail to find this at Changi DFS

Then there are also “blended malt whisky” or “vatted malts” which involves blending different single-malt whiskies without the addition of any grain whisky. If you come across “pure malts” like Nikka Taketsuru, Johnnie Walker Green Label and Monkey Shoulder, these whiskies are also considered blended malt or vatted malt whiskies.

Did you know? Johnnie Walker Green Label is a  blended malt

Did you know? Johnnie Walker Green Label is a blended malt

With that in mind, the next time someone hands you a bottle of whisky, I’m sure you’d be able to read the label and tell him/her exactly what kind of whisky it is. I hope you have enjoyed reading our first post. Keep on drinking. Cheers!