The word whisky conjures up visions of Scotland, Ireland, Kentucky, Japan, and now… Taiwan?!
Kavalan Whisky is the first — and only — whisky distillery in Taiwan, and the long time dream of T.T. Lee, octogenarian Chairman and Founder of the King Car Group, which does business in food, biotechnology, aquaculture, and beverages — the real reason you’ve likely heard of it is its RTD coffee, Mr. Coffee — and since 2006, whisky. Pursuitist recently visited Kavalan Whisky’s combination warehouse/visitor’s center, where the brand boasts upwards of a million guests per year.
Named for the earliest indigenous tribe to inhabit Yilan, which is located on the other side of a mountain tunnel pass about two hours outside of TaiPei, in the northeastern corner of the island of Taiwan, Kavalan represents “sincerity, honesty, and the spirit of step-by-step cultivation,” according to its website.
Barley is imported from Europe. Copper pot stills were built to order from Scotland. And the barrels — which arguably mean the most to the whisky’s flavor? Kavalan’s large warehouse can store an incredible 110,000 of them… so they experiment with some 50 different types of re-use casks, to create flavor profiles from your typical bourbon and sherry as well as port and wine, among others. All of this comes together to create a product that Kavalan boasts is “Pure Taiwan.”
And the location wasn’t an accident. Lee searched for years to find the perfect site with an ideal water supply. Yilan has an abundant supply of cold spring water that has flowed through Snow Mountain, which has a considerable influence on the spirit and its flavor. Additionally, the area’s warm, sub-tropical climate allows the whisky to mature rather quickly. Production continues year-round, 365 days a year.
After its first bottle was released in December 2008 (which was the first Taiwanese spirit ever produced), and Kavalan set out to create their wide variety of flavor expressions, exports began of many of their (now) award winning bottles. For example, you can now find a bottle of Kavalan’s top-of-the-line Fino offering, which retails stateside for around $425.
Experts who felt that the aging process was the key to a whisky’s complexities have been astounded. Not only was the distillery named (by Whisky Magazine) as the World Icons of Whisky “Whisky Visitor Attraction of the Year” for 2011, but it was also named New World Whisky Of The Year in The Whisky Bible (written by respected drinks connoisseur Jim Murray). Kavalan’s whiskey surprised the world by beating out some historic Scottish single malts in a blind taste test a few years ago, and its expressions continue to wow — with Kavalan’s young-yet-mature Concertmaster and Soloist Sherry Cask Strength both winning Double Medals at the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Kavalan’s Distillery and Visitor’s Center offer self-guided tours, tastings (guided in Mandarin only at this time) of its smooth and distinctive flavors, and a great bottle shop that sells its full range — plus exclusive Distillery varieties.