A taste of Taiwan’s top whisky

It is an enchanted land known for its bubble tea, pineapple cakes and bustling night markets, a place where colourful kimonos and exquisite porcelain tell the pride of a people who have successfully blended a variety of Asian traditions into their daily lives.

But whisky as one of Taiwan’s proudest accomplishments? That seems like more than a stretch. Since 2005, though, the tiny island, located just 160 kilometres from Mainland China — a place with an ambiguous status but one considered by its inhabitants to be a sovereign state — has been making a big name for itself in the whisky world.

That is thanks to Kavalan Whisky, which continues to rack up international awards since it beat out three top Scottish blends in a connoisseurs’ blind taste test a decade ago. In 2015, the Kavalan Soloist Vinho Barrique was declared the world’s best single malt at the World Whisky Awards. In time, Kavalan would boast more than 500 awards from industry competitions. (In most international industry competitions, including the International Wines & Spirits Competition, whiskies from Scotland, the U.S. and Ireland each get their own category; all other whiskies are grouped into the World Whisky category.)

Kavalan Whisky barrels, photo by Valerie Fortney

On a recent visit to the Kavalan headquarters an hour’s drive south of Taiwan’s capital city of Taipei, this writer was given a tour of its upscale facility, one that has been recognized in 2021 with an ISC Spirit Tourism Awards Distillery Visitor Centre Trophy. Guests are first introduced to the King Car Group, a Taiwanese beverage-making giant with more than four decades of operation. In the early 2000s, the company decided to test its mettle in the whisky-making world, taking the name Kavalan from Yilan County, where the company resides, which was once called Kavalan.

It was clear there was a market for their new product: Taiwan is said to be the third-largest consumer of single malts in the world. Still, there was no history of the craft on the island, no road map for realizing the dream.

Enter Dr. Jim Swan, a Scotsman renowned for helping distilleries around the world take the first baby steps towards making whisky. Dr. Swan, who died in 2017, was part of the team that in time would become the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, based in in the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scotland. A fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Swan, who held a PhD in chemistry and biological sciences, had a knack for helping start-up distilleries quickly get up to speed.

In those early days of development, Dr. Swan helped the Kavalan team harness the meltwaters from nearby Snow mountain to help produce the whisky’s distinctive dulcet tones, further enhanced by the combination of sea and mountain breezes; the island’s intense heat and humidity aids in quickly aging the whisky.

It’s clear that Dr. Swan — who also consulted on Amrut, the Indian single malt whisky that is now a global whisky powerhouse — was on to a good thing. Despite the challenges of producing whisky in a sub-tropical climate with long, hot and humid summers, Kavalan has taken advantage of those higher temperatures to speed up the extraction of colour and flavour from the cask wood, producing rich, flavourful whiskies. Critics have credited Kavalan with deftly managing its whisky maturation, producing flavourful, smooth and balanced whiskies.

Kavalan Whisky tasting, photo by Valerie Fortney

These days, crowds flock to Kavalan’s visitor centre, winding up a delightful day of whisky sampling with a meal that always includes the region’s famed Cherry Valley roasted duck.

And the industry accolades just keep coming: this past summer, Kavalan was named 2021’s Distillery of the Year at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the third time Kavalan has collected the prestigious prize; it also took home medals at the 2021 World Whiskies Awards, including one for its Soloist Oloroso Sherry as “Best Other Single Malt.” In July, it was also named World Whisky Producer of the Year, for the second year running, at the International Spirits Challenge. It also named the Tokyo Whisky & Spirits Competition’s 2021 Best of the Best single malt.

So, the next time you think of Taiwan, you’ll want to make sure you add whisky to its many charms, on an island overflowing with more than its fair share of attractions and attributes. In just a few years, Taiwan has gone from being a place where whisky producing was non-existent, to being a growing whisky-producing force to be reckoned with.