Kavalan Distillery: The Unlikely Emperor in the East
To someone who has really immersed themselves in the lore of whisky, it is more than just a dram of gorgeous sunset-coloured liquid. The first splash of the spirit on your taste buds finds an almost vaguely poetic place in a memory quite personal. Yet, all whisky lovers of the world are united by something that is, at the same time, nebulous and accurate. Such is the way of uisce beatha — water of life.
Not all whisky are found in the books of experts. Not every dram shares the sodium spotlight of iconoclasts. In fact, when we speak of whisky, we think of Scottish moors and cliffs, we think of rich Irish traditions with notoriously heavy drinking. Whisky sometimes takes the shape of a meandering Mississippi tracing the age-old bourbon trail. It takes the form of dusty old saloons from Wild West fantasies and suddenly changes to that of elegance from a Japanese painting. Yes, whiskies tell stories. And one such story lies tucked away in the mystic folds of a subtropical island in the Far East: Taiwan.
The story of the Kavalan dates back centuries, although the story of the drink does not begin until much closer to this day. Named after the indigenous Kavalan people of what is known today as Yilan County, the dream distillery of Mr. Tien-Tsai Lee came up in the December of 2005, making it the first Taiwanese whisky makers. Shortly after its grand inauguration, the distillery began to take flight and the first spirit to bear the name of Kavalan was produced in March, 2006. Bottling had to wait another two years until 2008. But what this brand was to accomplish was far beyond mere whisky production. Kavalan was to strike an arrow right at the heart of the whisky tradition. The heart of single malts.
The blow came at a blind whisky tasting organised in Leith, Scotland in 2010. The tasting concluded, Scotch whisky had been dethroned as the best whisky, and thus began the reign of Kavalan. Since that fateful Burns Night Supper event, the Taiwanese whisky makers have collected awards one after the other. In the following year, it was named 'Whisky Visitor Attraction of the Year’ by Whisky Magazine. The year after that, Kavalan was named 'New Whisky of the Year’ by Jim Murray's Whisky Bible. But, the biggest accomplishment for Kavalan came only a decade from its birth. In 2015, the Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique defeated competition from around the world to be declared 'Best Single Malt’ at the World Whiskies Awards.
The Taiwanese whisky makers apply the traditional double distillation process. The first distillation still separates the water and the alcohol while the second process gives three distinct outputs. The foreshots, which is the first spirit to make it out of the still, the heart, and the feints, which is the last of spirits. The heart is then collected in casks and matured over varying periods of time in their 5 storey maturation warehouse. The warm subtropical climate acts as a catalyst to the flavour extraction and maturation process making Kavalan whiskies seem more mature than other whiskies at a similar age.
One sip of the whisky is enough to comprehend the world decision to declare Kavalan as the world’s best whisky. The gem of the Solist series, the Vinho Barrique, is matured entirely in American oak wine casks that have been charred to bring out the vanilla notes that is quite evident in each dram. The whisky bears a dark autumn gold colour and a mixture of vanilla, caramelised sugar, and dark chocolate on the nose. The taste is clean and leaves with a long aftertaste.
Whisky is one of the most treasured inventions of mankind. At a day and age when everything is being modified to suit the fast life and glowing glitter of sci-fi, Kavalan is keeping the old traditions alive from the most unlikely corner of the globe.