TAIPEI – Taiwan, an island located far away from traditional producers of whiskey, where the natural conditions and climate are not seen as suitable for making high-quality versions of the spirit, have broken molds and received the highest awards due in part to casks from Jerez and Porto.
No one would have believed in 2008 that Kavalan – which had begun to bottle its first whiskeys – would go on to win the best whiskey prize at the World Whisky Awards in Scotland with its “Solist Vinho Barrique Single Cask Strength” only seven years later.
It repeated the feat in 2016, with its “Solist Amontillado Sherry Single Cask Strength” and in the year following that with its “Solist ex-Bourbon Single Cask Strength” it won the best distillery award at the International Wine and Spirits Competition.
With these recognitions and its rapid commercial expansion, the Taiwanese whiskey maker challenged many stereotypes, including the need for long aging, the replication of the Scottish climate and most of the industry’s common practices.
“We are a good example of whiskey matured under a subtropical climate because other whiskey-producing regions are all in cool climates. But in Taiwan, we mature our whiskey under a subtropical climate, which is really hot and humid. So I think it’s the weather that makes us different. This is how we changed the game,” Nico Liu, Kavalan brand ambassador, told EFE.
With maturing of the drink at a “fast speed” because of the favorable climate, an abundance of rain and humidity, pure water and the barrels from Jerez and Porto, Kavalan has been catapulted to stardom in just a few years.
Liu said that the distillery perfected its technique with used barrels, which began in Scotland and was developed later in Japan with, for example, charring and shaving phases to extract the entire flavor.
Moreover, for its “stars” Kavalan opted for whiskeys of “cask strength” with between 50 and 70 per cent alcohol by volume, without diluting it with water to 40 to 45 percent as is usual in commercial distilleries.
Liu said that they offer an experience for the most demanding consumers although they also sell variants that are brought down to 40 per cent alcohol such as Kavalan Classic.
Kavalan produces some 5 million liters of alcohol annually and distributes its whiskeys in more than 70 countries at high prices compared to many of the traditional brands.
Founder of the company, Tien-Tsai Lee, had the vision of producing the first whiskey of Taiwan using high quality equipment, in a sub-tropical environment and barrels from Jerez.
“For sherry wine itself, it is not so popular for Taiwanese consumers but Taiwanese love sherry cask whiskey,” Liu added.
Kavalan uses Oloroso, Pedro Ximenez, Amontillado, Manzanilla and Moscatel casks and will soon include “Palo Cortado,” Liu said, adding that the choice of barrels is important in the success of the Taiwanese brand.
Taiwan, according to Liu is now the headquarters of whiskeys in casks originating in Jerez.
When Taiwan entered in the list of awards without a vintage variant, some thought that it was luck, but the perception soon changed with the number awards won every year in Europe as well as the United States.
The secrets of Kavalan’s success are said to be in the care during its production, Taiwanese tasters and the selection along with climate, water and casks originating from Jerez.
Kavalan whiskeys go through at least four years of aging, but are not sold as vintage nor are they aged for decades, as is the practice with other brands.
The tasters continue to personalize each of the barrels and decide when to put them on sale, something which is earmarked on the labels of every bottle of the special series of their unique origin.
Kavalan is not the only whiskey to have won international recognition, as the government-owned Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Corp has also joined the challenge and in the central region of the island produces another whiskey named Omar.
This whiskey has been described as a top-quality and high-priced variant, which takes pride in using sherry barrels from Jerez for ageing and seeks to establish that the island is not only one of the largest consumers of whiskey in the world, but also a high-quality production center.