How Taiwan became a serious rival to whisky stalwarts like Scotland and Ireland
The tremendous global success of upstart brand Kavalan has helped turn Taiwan into a magnet for whisky connoisseurs.
It’s a sleepy-seeming rainy early morning in Yilan County, the rural home of the Kavalan Distillery – ground zero for Taiwan’s growing reputation as a mecca for lovers of single malts. But already the most famous attraction in this otherwise peaceful corner of northern Taiwan thrums with activity.
In the citadel-like building where the whisky is made, matured and tasted, a handful of the 700,000-plus visitors who visit the distillery every year are sniffing malted barley and gazing in awe at giant copper stills imported from Scotland.
As tourists gawp from the hallways above, workers manning the maturation warehouse carefully survey the barrels, which are stacked at different heights according to their vintage and stage of maturation.
The distillery, which sprawls out over its site at the base of fog-shrouded mountains, is known for its unique alchemy – despite having only opened for business in 2006.
How else but by sorcery could this newbie transform Taiwan into a serious rival to single malt stalwarts like Scotland and Ireland?
There are no supernatural secrets to the imprint’s success, however, according to Kaitlyn Tsai, Kavalan’s brand ambassador.
Instead, the process is dictated by hard work, a pure, mineral rich water source from the surrounding mountains, careful brand management, and – perhaps most importantly of all – the weather.
“Our subtropical climate in Yilan hugely impacts maturation,” said Tsai, explaining how Kavalan morphed from a long-held dream to the winners’ podium at prestigious global whisky awards at such lightning speed.
“It enables us to develop a rich and complex whisky in just a few years. It's not just the heat of Yilan's summer that causes the accelerated maturation and the smoother, softer finish, but also the cold Siberian winds in winter, which maximise the process of oxidation. Yilan happens to be the first place in Taiwan where the Siberian winds hit, making it the best place on the island to make whisky.”
When a whisky from Taiwan was named the globe’s top single malt at the World Whiskies Awards 2015, it came as a shock to many. For years, it was a given that the best single malts were from Scotland: The birthplace and spiritual home of the so-called “water of life”.
Competition from upstarts in Japan, the US and elsewhere has levelled the playing field in recent times. Even still, the triumph of Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique – a smooth number hailed by judges for its “sweet, pruney” flavours – was a bolt from the blue.
While the climate has no-doubt played a massive part in the breakneck emergence of Kavalan, its success is merely part of a carefully plotted-out masterplan conceived by owner Tien-Tsai Lee.
Lee, managing director of King Car – the conglomerate that produces Kavalan as well as a plethora of other items including cockroach powder, coffee and beer – is another Yilan native as well as a long-term lover of single malts.
For years, he dreamed of producing whiskies that could hold their own on the global stage. In 2002, his wish was granted when Taiwanese authorities allowed private companies such as King Car to manufacture liquor, previously a state-controlled concern.
Lee cut no corners in achieving his goal. Little expense was spared in the construction of the giant distillery. Stills were imported from Scotland while premium wine, port, sherry and bourbon casks were sourced from Spain, Kentucky and Portugal.
Master distiller Ian Chang has since moved on from Kavalan. Nevertheless, his know-how was key in those early years. Chang was sent to Scotland to study the distilling process. He was mentored, meanwhile, by the late Dr Jim Swan, a leading industry expert on wood management who Tsai describes as the “Einstein of whisky”.
Such painstaking attention to detail has not only rocketed Kavalan to prominence, it has also sparked a growing appreciation for single malts in Taiwan as a whole.
Taiwan has a second distillery, Nantou, in the centre of the island. Its Omar range of single malts may not yet have achieved the worldwide fame that Kavalan’s impressions have, but whisky buffs are raving about the former’s earthy, fruity flavours.
“Ask most whisky drinkers about Taiwanese whisky and they’ll probably respond ‘Taiwanese whisky? You mean Kavalan?’,” said Martin Eber, founding editor of TimeForWhisky.com, writing in Executive Traveller. “But Omar has been producing single malts since 2008, and – judging by what I’ve tasted over the years – [they’re] doing a great job of it.”
Taiwan’s whisky-drinking tradition is nothing new. Long business lunches have long been lubricated by multiple drams. In 2019, it ranked as the fourth largest market by value for Scotch behind the US, France and Singapore, according to the Scotch Whisky Association.
The emergence of Kavalan and a smattering of specialist whisky bars in Taipei and other Taiwanese cities, though, indicate that drinkers on the island are moving away from the “bottoms up” culture of throwing back hard liquor.
In Taipei, chic venues such as L’Arriere Cour and MOD Public Bar are filled with young whisky lovers sampling single malts from around the world as well as varieties by Omar and Kavalan. Kavalan’s status as a global heavyweight in the whisky business meanwhile, is indicative of how far the brand has travelled in a relatively short space of time.
“Today, we've won many awards and earned a reputation, but it has been hard won,” added Tsai. “Ten years ago, people still believed the idea of Kavalan was impossible because there was no other distillery operating in a climate close to ours. So there was a period in the early years when all we had was a commitment to making this first Taiwanese whisky a success, together with all the hard work and persistence to pull us through.”
Hidden away down a secluded alley, this veteran bar is heaven for whisky lovers with over 400 single malts to choose from, including all the Taiwanese drops. Sharply dressed barmen will offer tips curated to your taste.
2: MOD Public Bar
Another tucked away gem, MOD Public Bar offers a lively atmosphere, friendly service and a great alternative music soundtrack. There’s a hefty selection of bottles to choose from, and the expert bartenders will mix you a great cocktail if whisky isn’t your thing.
3: Henry’s Bar
While other venues are hipper, the bar at the Sherwood Taipei Hotel exudes warm, homely vibes and is perfect for settling down into a comfortable chair with a dram of Kavalan or Omar.