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Kavalan Whisky : The Remarkable Art of Blending Science and Nature

Over the last few years a whisky distillery from Taiwan, unknown to many has caught some of the best whisky connoisseurs by surprise, having won many prestigious international awards including blind tasting competitions featuring Scotch whiskies.

The whiskies from Kavalan Distillery in Taiwan have won numerous prestigious awards including gold medals in various competitions since 2010. In 2015 Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique was announced as the best single malt whisky in the world by the World Whiskies Awards and subsequently in 2016, Kavalan Solist Amontillado Sherry was declared as the world's best single cask and single malt whisky by World Whiskies Awards.

Kavalan distillery in Taiwan
Kavalan Distillery in Taiwan
At Grapes & Grains we decided to follow up on the remarkable rise of Kavalan whisky to gain a better insight into its success, philosophy, history, distinct processes and usage of different casks that have won them a plethora of awards.

Brief History of Kavalan Whisky

Established in 2005, Kavalan is Taiwan's first whisky maker and the nation's only family-owned whisky distillery. It gets its name from the indigenous Kavalan tribe who originally inhabited the Kabalan Plain of modern-day Yilan County, which represents sincerity, honesty, and the spirit of step-by-step cultivation.

Kavalan Distillery in Yilan County Taiwan
Kavalan Distillery in Yilan County Taiwan
Kavalan Distillery is an entrepreneur's dream come true. Mr. Tien-Tsai Lee, the founder of King Car conglomerate had dreamt of producing a Taiwanese whisky, yet it was only in 2002, that his vision could be realized after Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization and it became possible for a private company to own a distillery.

King Car Group, with more than 2000 employees, was established in 1956 and runs business in several fields: beverages, food, biotechnology, aquaculture and others. It is particularly famous for its RTD (Ready-To-Drink) coffee, Mr. Brown. Kavalan Distillery was able to leverage the highly specialized distilling and blending skills that King Car Group has developed for more than 30 years through beverage manufacturing experience and knowledge.

Harnessing the best of globalization

Globalization is transforming the way some of the most successful companies interact and conduct their business by sourcing goods and services from locations around the world to benefit from the cost and quality of production factors like labor, capital and materials.

King Car Group has developed into a successful conglomerate by creating higher value products through their knowledge of manufacturing, automation, highly skilled labor and through sourcing some of their production materials from other countries around the world. They buy the milk from New Zealand and coffee beans from Indonesia for their beverage and coffee products.

Kavalan Distillery has adopted the same successful business practices of its parent company King Car Group. It imported its distillation pot stills from Scotland, which is also the main source for its malted barley. The casks used for aging are purchased from wine makers in Spain and Portugal and oak barrels from the United States. Yeast which is an important part of the fermentation process comes from South Africa and France.

Art of Blending Science and Nature

Great whisky is not just a product of nature or science but a complex blend of nature, art and science. The art of combining the best of what nature offers with proven and tested scientific processes distinguishes one great whisky from another and finding the right balance and harmony by blending science and nature creates truly remarkable whiskies.

Nature's Gift of Water and Air

Water is the main constituent of whisky, and good water makes good whisky. Small differences in water composition can result in big differences in flavor.

Pure spring water
Pure spring water
Mr. Tien-Tsai Lee, the founder of Kavalan spent years searching for the perfect site, with the ideal water supply. He chose Yilan located in northeastern Taiwan as the site due to its abundant supply of cold and pure spring water flowing from the Central Mountain and the Snow Mountain Range. Soft spring water, for example, gives whisky a soft, clean body.

The surrounding air quality is an important factor in the whisky making process as the fresh mountain air is said to give Kavalan whisky its smooth and refreshing character. The air in Yilan is considered to be the cleanest and most fresh in Taiwan.

Strategic location of Yilan
Strategic location of Yilan
Kavalan distillery is located at the cross boundary of Yilan Mountain and the Pacific Ocean. The interaction of the Pacific Ocean mist and the Snow Mountain wind has an enhancing effect on the air circulating around the casks, as the whisky inside the casks absorbs the natural essence of its surrounding, therefore creating its rich and distinctly refreshing character.

The Science of Fermentation and Distillation

Fermentation is a chemical process that converts sugar found in grains to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Distillation purifies it and removes diluting components like water, for the purpose of increasing its proportion of alcohol content. The fermentation and distillation process, and the geometrical shape of the distillation pot affects the taste of the whisky.

Kavalan uses a highly monitored process for controlling the temperature during fermentation. This ensures that the flavors are consistent and the ones desired based on the yeast used during the fermentation process.

Distillation process at Kavalan Distillery
Distillation process at Kavalan Distillery
The size and shape of the stills are important, as are the skill and experience of the men who manage them to create a high quality whisky. It is the objective of the distiller to produce a whisky whose flavor and character remain consistent at all times and in all circumstances. Kavalan Distillery uses the traditional pot stills and a double distillation method. The pot stills work in pairs. The first distillation separates the alcohol and water. The second distillation collects the best part of the spirit from the still.

A Distinct Flavor Profile based on Climate and Aging

Aging an alcoholic product like whisky is dependent on three important elements — time, aging container and a few essential chemical reactions between the liquid, air and container. These three elements influence the character of the whisky and give it its distinct flavor profile.

Warm summers and year-long humidity hardly make for world class whiskey, however Kavalan has scientifically and creatively addressed the impact of the climate on its whisky aging process. Kavalan whisky uses shorter aging period as compared to the whisky produced in cooler regions.

Four years of maturation in the Taiwanese heat represents at least 10 to 12 in Scotland as the warmer climate creates a quicker extraction of color and wood flavors during maturation, although a higher proportion of the whisky is lost to evaporation during aging as compared to whisky aged in cooler climate. Shorter aging period also creates a bold flavor profile that is more suited for a particular palate, unlike the complex flavor profile and long finish of a well aged Scotch.

Whisky aging in oak barrels
Whisky aging in oak barrels
Kavalan which has a professional whisky R&D team with a world-class master blender, Ian Chang, and a specialist Dr. Jim Swan has conducted experimentation with different types of casks and charring techniques on the oak barrels for maturing the whisky. Whisky aged in oak barrels and finished in sherry casks can add a sweet dried fruit flavor and smoothness to the whisky. Charred barrels impart a darker color, as well as sweet flavors like caramel and honey, besides spice notes to the whisky.

The oak casks used at Kavalan are made from American oak that has been seasoned in the open air for at least 24 months. This reduces the astringent effect of tannins and releases more vanilla notes and hints of herbs. After their use in wine maturation the casks are carefully shaved inside then gently toasted over oak chips fire. This converts wine residues into a complex mixture of fruit flavors.

Additionally Kavalan uses Spanish sherry casks and Portuguese port casks that were used for wine making, for maturation, to add multiple layers of flavors and complexity to its whisky.

Tasting Notes for Kavalan Whiskies

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky - Kavalan Single Malt Whisky was awarded a gold best-in-class medal in 2011 and worldwide whisky trophy in 2014 in International Wine and Spirits Competition.

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky
Kavalan Single Malt Whisky
It is clean, elegant, pleasant and refreshing, floral with hints of honey and tropical fruits (mango in particular), vanilla, coconuts and notes of chocolate.


Kavalan Concertmaster Single Malt Whisky - Kavalan Concertmaster single malt uses Portuguese ruby, tawny and vintage Port wine casks to add flavor and compose a harmonic symphony. It has been awarded several medals including gold medal at the 2016 International Wine and Spirits Competition.

Kavalan Concertmaster Single Malt Whisky
Kavalan Concertmaster Single Malt Whisky
It is rick bodied with natural sweetness and complexity with tropical fruit flavors, notes of vanilla and coconut.


Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon - Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon matured in hand selected American Bourbon casks has been awarded several gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and at the International Wine and Spirits Competition.

Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon Whisky
Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon Whisky
It is clean, smooth, well-balanced, with tropical fruit flavors, notes of vanilla, coconut and oak spices.


Kavalan Solist Oloroso Sherry - Kavalan Solist Oloroso Sherry matured in Spanish top quality oloroso sherry casks has been awarded several awards at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Kavalan Solist Sherry Whisky
Kavalan Solist Sherry Whisky
It is clean and complex with flavors of dried fruit and nuttiness from the maturation in sherry casks and spices that linger on in the mouth with additional hint of fine coffee.


Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry - Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry has been matured in the finest Fino Sherry casks that were used in the wine making. It has been awarded a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in 2016 and several awards at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Kavalan Solist Fino Whisky
Kavalan Solist Fino Whisky
It has complex fruit flavors layered with dry smoked wood aromas. This special anniversary edition of Solist cask strength whisky has a long finish and natural sweetness.


Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique - Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique is fully matured in used American oak wine barrels that have been toasted and re-charred, which adds notes of vanilla and caramelized sugars and hint of spice to the whisky.

Kavalan Solist Vinho Whisky
Kavalan Solist Vinho Whisky
It has complex flavors of pepper, spice, tropical fruits such as mango and kiwi, vanilla and caramelized sugars with a smooth and long aftertaste.


King Car Conductor Single Malt Whisky - King Car single malt is named after the conglomerate and represents its multi-area business diversity. It received a gold medal in 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in 2012.

King Car Single Malt Whisky
King Car Single Malt Whisky
It is clean, rich, sweet, with notes of papaya, banana and green apple, a slight pleasant bitterness that balances the upfront sweetness, a mouth-filling dram with complex layers of background fruitiness.


Kavalan Podium - Kavalan Podium is created from an array of specially selected and carefully treated brand-new American oak casks in combination with Kavalan's re-fill casks.

Kavalan Podium
Kavalan Podium
It is clean with subtropical fruit flavors such as mango and green apple with hints of honey, cherry and white pepper.

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