If I told you that not only does the best new whiskey come from Taiwan, but that it beat out a host of top-notch whiskeys in an international competition, you’d think I was crazy or biased (after all, I am Taiwanese!) or both. But before you raise your eyebrow and question why Kavalan’s single malt is one of the best-tasting whiskeys on the market, let me show you some hard, non-biased evidence.
According to the famous British newspaper, The Times, Kavalan was the top pick in a connoisseurs’ blind taste test in Scotland. “It beat a trio of top Scottish blends.” Shocked? Amazed? You’re not the only one. “Oh my God,” commented whiskey-connoisseur Charles MacLean when the result was announced in 2010, the same year Kavalan won a Gold Award and made it into Jim Murray’s 2010 edition of the Whisky Bible, the world’s leading whiskey guide.
Although whiskey isn’t my soul mate like tea is, whiskey has been my choice of poison for the past decade. I like my poison the way I like my men – strong and quiet. With at least 40% alcohol, whiskey means business. But more important, whiskey is a quiet drink. It doesn’t come with artificial color, sugar or an umbrella which screams, “I’m so pretty. Look at me!” Best of all, it doesn’t give me a bad hangover the next day.
I first heard of Kavalan Whisky from my niece, Hui-jen, when my friends and I decided to tour around Taiwan. She thought my American friends, visiting Formosa for the first time, might enjoy sampling some local whiskey. Without an actual address, we ventured to Yilan in search of the distillery. Just as we guessed, Kavalan was very well-known to the Yilan natives and the first person we asked pointed us in the right direction. When we got to the distillery, the woman in front told us we’d just missed the guided tour by 25 minutes, so we rushed to the second plant, ran through the different rooms where gigantic machines worked in some, where barrels of whiskey aged in others, and finally caught up with the tour. The view of the tasting room, the room at the end of our mad dash, was spectacular – a huge hall packed with a few hundred Asian tourists. Having no seats, my friends and I sat at the bar and chatted with the bartenders. And this turned out to be the best experience of the whole tour. When we asked to sample different whiskeys, the bartender glanced at the other tourists, who were tasting only one whiskey, and told us, very quietly, to wait until they were gone. Sure enough, when the mass exodus was over, the bartender brought out several different bottles of Kavalan for the four of us to try. He answered all of our questions and the whiskey certainly quenched our thirst. By the time we left the distillery we were happily buzzed.
The experts had given Kavalan a big thumbs up. But what about an amateur whiskey drinker like me who’s only been drinking the good stuff for a decade? After our personal tasting, I was convinced that Kavalan single malt was the best whiskey I’d ever had the pleasure to drink. Rich, smooth, with a great after taste, this Taiwanese whiskey was tops.
With a blind-taste-test victory under its belt, along with my amateur’s decree, the question about Kavalan’s rank as a premier whiskey had been answered. But another question remained: how could Taiwan produce a top-shelf whiskey that could compete against Scotland’s finest blends? The Chinese philosopher Mencius believed there are three fundamental elements for success: 天時 (the right timing), 地利 (the right location), and人和 (the right people). Kavalan was putting out the best new whiskey because King Car, the company that owns the Kavalan distillery, utilized all three elements to delicious advantage.
The Right Location – Great Water with Shorter Brewing Time
Although I don’t know much about making a good whiskey, I know a lot about making a good tea. Like whiskey, making tea requires only two ingredients and one vessel: water, tea leaves or grain, and a tea pot or cask. When a beverage has only a few ingredients, it’s harder to perfect and the quality of each ingredient is vital.
King Car chose Yilan as its production site, a decision that makes perfect sense because Yilan’s water comes from one of the top two cold spring resources in the world (the other spot is in Italy). Pure, cold, clear and odorless, it’s the ideal water to brew a great beverage like whiskey or tea.
Taiwan also has the perfect climate, with its warm temperatures and high humidity, for making great whiskey. On average, Taiwan is twenty degrees (Celsius) warmer than Scotland and these warmer temperatures mean a shorter brewing time. In other words, Taiwan requires only about three years to produce a full-bodied, mature, complex scotch, half the time Scotland needs.
The Right People – Scottish Management and Sophisticated Consumers
As you can guess, Taiwan didn’t have much experience making whiskey. King Car was wise enough to hire Scottish management for Kavalan and utilize their expertise.
As you might not guess, Asians are among the most sophisticated whiskey consumers in the world. According to my first-hand observations, Taiwan’s whiskey drinkers consume, predominantly, high-end whiskey. Since Kavalan is exclusively sold in Taiwan and Japan, King Car has every reason to produce and market a top-shelf whiskey for the discerning drinker.
The Right Timing – Consumers Are Ready to Spend Money on Premium Whiskey
Taiwan has become an economic power in the world since it transformed itself from a country exporting labor-intensive goods to one producing high-tech products. With the GDP ranked 19th in the world, Taiwanese people certainly have the purchasing power to afford a top-shelf whiskey. The timing is right. I have to admit that Kavalan’s going price, $60 for a 750ml bottle, is very high, especially for a low-brand-recognition whiskey like Kavalan. And Kavalan probably needs to lower its price (or consumers need to accept the fact that the price for a local-brewed whiskey is much higher than a well-known Scotch). Still, Kavalan’s taste and texture will make the sixty dollars easy to swallow. Unfortunately, Kavalan is now only sold in Taiwan and three stores in Japan. But I’ll keep you posted at Asia By Frida when Kavalan becomes available in the US and other countries.
You can be sure that when we went through customs, our bags contained a couple bottles of Kavalan.
Gan Bei! (Bottom’s up or, literally, Dry cup in Chinese)