17 Aug Where to Drink the World’s Best Whisky
I’m in a taxi on my way to taste the world’s best whisky, but the view outside of the car window is not of misty Scottish hillsides or Bourbon County. Instead, I’m looking at rice fields and palm trees. The world’s best whisky isn’t being distilled in Japan or Kentucky or Scotland—it’s made in Taiwan.
In 2015, just ten years after its inception, Kavalan Whisky stunned the spirits industry when it claimed the title of World’s Best Single Malt Whisky at the World Whisky Awards. It swooped up another world’s best award for its single cask malt whisky the following year.
To date, Kavalan has raked in more than 180 awards from around the world. Not bad for a country perhaps better known for its pineapple cake and xiaolongbao.
I get out of my taxi at the King Car Whisky Distillery on the outskirts of Yilan City in northeast Taiwan. Nico Liu, Kavalan’s “Whisky Creation & Market Development Brand Ambassador,” greets me at the front of a convention center at the property.
We head to a very baller conference room to watch an introductory video about Kavalan’s parent company, the King Car Group. The conglomerate has a lot of moving parts outside of whisky production, from orchid farming to molecular biology research to cleaning supply manufacturing.
From the video, I can glean that Kavalan has a special place in the heart of King Car’s founder, Tien-Tsai Lee. He wanted to prove that a whisky from Taiwan could be world class, and that’s exactly what he’s done in just a decade. When the video’s over, we set off for a tour of the sprawling distillery grounds.
“After 2002, when Taiwan officials relaxed regulations for private companies to build our own distillery, Mr. Lee wasted no time to visit Scotland, Canada, Ireland, Japan,” Liu tells me of the Kavalan origin story.
“In 2005, we started to construct our own distillery. Compared to other distilleries who spend five to six years to complete their distillery, we only took just nine months to complete the construction.”
She explains that in 2002, Lee had opened a water plant in Yilan County where his mother-in-law lived. The area was known for its pure water, making it perfect for both a water plant and later a whisky distillery.
We pass the distillery’s re-charring area where the insides of casks are set ablaze. It’s part of the “STR” process: Casks get shaved, toasted, and charred to recondition them, removing any unwanted flavors.
“Taiwan is in subtropical climate, so that’s why the expressions are different from other whisky because we are in very hot climate,” Liu says as I wipe my forehead with a paper towel to sop up my dripping sweat.
“It is very hot and humid at the same time. Compared to other countries, you can tell that the climate is totally different, which is what makes us so unique.”
According to the Kavalan website, Taiwan’s climate makes the whisky take on flavor from the oak faster than it would in other parts of the world. Liu tells me that Kavalan expressions can be very young and taste very old at the same time.
“This is our castle,” Liu says, motioning to the citadel-like building where the whisky is made, matured, and tasted.
The inside of the castle reminds me of the Guinness Factory in Dublin. There are a lot of tourist-friendly exhibitions in the hallways surrounding the production floor, which is necessary considering the distillery draws about a million visitors every year. We touch and smell malted barley, peer into charred casks, gaze at the massive stills imported from Scotland.
We pass by the five-story maturation warehouse before heading to the tasting room. Even though it’s the middle of summer, there is a huge Christmas tree-shaped light fixture adorned with ornaments. Next to it is a snowman character. Visitors pose in front of the display and capture the moment via selfie stick.
Liu guides me through tasting of the award-winning goods. She describes the subtle nuances of each Kavalan expression we taste. We start with the Kavalan Classic, which Liu calls an easygoing, entry-level pick. It’s 40 percent ABV and a nearby notecard says it has notes of honey, mango, green, apple, and cherry.
“In the smell, you can tell that it is very complex,” Liu says. “This is our best seller.”
We move on to the King Car Conductor single malt, which is 46 percent alcohol and representative of “the company’s diversity and multi-faceted business,” according to the website.
Lastly comes Liu’s favorite expression, the Kavalan Solist Sherry Single Cask Strength single malt. It varies in ABV depending on the batch, but hovers around 57 percent.
“This one has very high alcohol content, so for some people who don’t drink very much they can add some water,” Liu says. “One of the purposes is to release the flavor and the second is to dilute it to the alcohol content you want.”
Although they sent their Yilan native master distiller, Ian Chang, around the globe to the best distilleries for R&D, Kavalan didn’t become a mega success by direct imitation.
“Some people say that we imitate some country’s technology, but we do not,” Liu says. “No matter in distillation or mashing process or maturation process, we have our own way to do it.
“We don’t want to imitate some other country’s way to produce whiskey. We have to have our own way.”
I leave Kavalan a little buzzed, very impressed, and medium hungry. Fortunately for me, the world’s best whisky happens to be made in a country with the world’s best night markets, too.