The Best Whisky in the World is Taiwanese
In 12 years, Kavalan conquers the 500 year old whisky world.
This story is part of our "Good Taste Tour" series. Giant Robot Media travels all over the world to find things with good taste, whether it be food, drinks, art, or hand made products. It's also an excuse for us to just travel.
When you think whisky, you synonymously think Scotland. For over 500 years, the Scottish have been crafting this liquid gold. Macallan, Johnnie Walker, and Laguvulin are just a few of the numerous Scottish distilleries known worldwide. They have even made waves in pop culture, appearing in James Bond flicks and Parks and Recreation episodes. However, in the past decade, a new whisky has emerged into the playing field: Kavalan. Unbeknownst to many, Kavalan is not Scottish, but Taiwanese. Named after the indigenous Kavalan people in Yilan, a city on the eastern coast of Taiwan, Kavalan shook the world of whisky, winning over 200 gold prizes as the best whisky in the world.
To find out how an Asian whisky company only 12 years old was capable to knock down a giants, I traveled to Yilan and toured their enormous factory.
By George Ko
Photos and Video by George Ko.
A translated post in Mandarin coming out soon.
Kavalan is a part of the King Car Group, a huge conglomerate that made its fortune in selling consumer beverages for over 35 years. Their rise to success was thanks to Mr. Brown Coffee, a canned cold coffee available in almost every convenient store in Taiwan. Mr. Brown Coffee grew to Starbucks status, opening cafes all over Taiwan. Today, there are over 50 locations.
Upon arriving at the facility, it was apparent this was no micro-distillery in an Arts District. Kavalan’s plant encompassed tens of acres, and its main headquarters sat on top of this sprawling green field like a castle. Inside the main lobby were tons of Italian marble like a museum in Western Europe. There was even a concert hall.
The first thing we visited whisky wise was the Charring Room. Here, old American barrels were charred by a flaming torch to create that infamous smoky flavor found in whisky. What makes Kavalan unique is that they char wine barrels, which give a cherry, grape flavor to their whisky. Almost all Scottish distilleries char American bourbon barrels, giving a more orange peel flavor. The charring also crystalizes the sugars that reside in the barrels, which add a hint of brown sugar to the palette. Taiwanese people are obsessed with brown sugar, the dominant flavor in boba, which probably explains why Taiwanese people prefer Kavalan over European or American whiskys.
We then visited the distilling area, where the malt is converted into that clear spirit which after several decades becomes that dark, golden liquor. But something didn’t add up. Kavalan is only 12 years old. How the hell were they able to have aged whisky that looks 25 or 52 years old? I asked the Master Bartender at Kavalan, Ian Chang, and he said, “Whiskies at Kavalan need aging, but they don’t require as much time. Between every June and October, the heat speeds up the aging process, which means the whisky color darkens faster. What happens in two months with Kavalan can take 10 to 20 years in cooler countries.”
Taiwan is hot and humid. Almost the entirety of the summer in the country stays at 95° Fahrenheit at 95% humidity. That extremely hot and moist weather rapidly increases the aging process. But there’s another consequence: the heat makes water evaporate. This means Kavalan whisky has higher alcohol content. Their cask strength whiskies push 62% alcohol or 124 proof.
After that, we visited the barreling room, where we took a standard Asian press photo. Presented in the barrel room were also every kind of whisky they make. Ian comments, “There are currently 20 flavors of whiskies from Kavalan. All the whiskies come from the same source, but the different flavors are created by the different oak barrels we use. Here at Kavalan, we try to accommodate each consumer’s personal taste: we use these barrels to create a diverse range of colors and flavors so that each whisky can have its own purpose and serve a different setting.”
After touring the massive facility, we got to make a blend of our own in the Blending Room. My brother, Ted, the production assistant for the day, drank with me as we tried many varieties of whisky. One thing we noticed was the incredibly smooth texture – something you don’t really get until you shell out $500 bucks for a bottle of Scotch. Ian claimed it had something to do with Yilan’s unique environment. “Cold air from Russia comes to Taiwan. And because Yilan is surrounded by the Central Mountains and Xueshan Mountain, the cold air lands here first. Having those low temperatures and large rainfalls benefit the oxidation process, which softens the taste of whisky to become more silky and smooth.”
Since not much happens around Yilan, the distillery acts as a community center for the city. There were elementary school students on field trips. People were lounging in the main lobby. There was even a Mr. Brown Coffee. It felt like Taiwan’s take of a Google campus.
Despite their immediate success in such a short time frame, the CEO of Kavalan, Lee Yu-Ting (or Albert by his English name) sees Kavalan rising to also being one of the highest volume producers in the world. He comments, “The first ten years have been a learning or knowledge-absorbing phase, and what comes after is a comprehensive maturing phase. We’re more knowledgeable now, so we’re finding new levels of creativity. We’ve planned something new for the next ten years, but we’d like to leave some room for the consumers’ imagination.”
Sounds good Albert, we’ll keep a lookout for the new stuff. If ever Kavalan needs guinea pigs, we will be there.
You can check out Kavalan's website here.
And their instagram.
For a place to buy them in the U.S., click here.