It has been over a decade since Kavalan first began stirring things up in the whisky world. Between 2010 and 2015, the Taiwanese distillery managed to change the face of the whisky world. From warm weather maturation to STR (Shaved, Toasted and Recharred) casks, the young upstart garnered a slew of top awards. In 2012, Kavalan’s Solist Fino Sherry Cask malt whisky was named “new whisky of the year” by Jim Murray and in 2015, Kavalan’s Vinho Barrique expression was named the world’s best single malt whisky by World Whiskies Awards.
The man behind India’s Amrut, Penderyn of Wales, and Kilchoman on Islay, was also heavily involved in the creation of Kavalan. Dr Jim Swan developed the STR cask and helped put the Taiwanese distillery on the map.
It wasn’t just Dr Swan, however, as Kavalan makes its whiskies in a truly remarkable place. Located in Yilan, known as the “County of Water,” the area surrounding the distillery is a place of nature boasting the purest water in Taiwan, drawn from a source in the peaks of ancient Snow Mountain. That along with the region’s subtropical climate and cold Siberian winter winds help make the area the ideal place to make whisky.
We sat down with Brand Ambassador Kaitlyn Tsai to discuss Yilan County, the distillery, Dr Jim Swan and how Kavalan grew into one of the top brands in the whisky world.
Kavalan was Taiwan’s first Whisky. It has pushed innovation from the beginning and changed the way we look at Whisky production and where it can be produced. But can you tell me about your first experience with Whisky and how that impacts the way you look at Kavalan’s various releases?
The first time I tried whisky neat was right here in Kavalan Distillery at the public tasting area a few years before I started working for the company. I remember there were so many nosing samples of different expressions on the table. And they gave me one free dram of Kavalan Classic. I can recall how surprised I was at the mellowness and multi-layered aromas of this 40% BV whisky. Unlike other whiskies I’d tasted, it didn’t burn at all and I found its aromas could almost be a very pleasant male perfume.
That really gave me confidence in the complexity, depth and palatability of Kavalan’s various releases. I am convinced that Kavalan has changed the industry, making quality about maturity, and not about age.
Kavalan makes its Whiskies in Yilan County, Taiwan. Can you tell us a bit about Yilan County and what makes it special amongst all the Whisky making destinations in the world?
It’s known as the “County of Water,” a place of nature boasting the purest water in Taiwan, drawn from a source in the peaks of ancient Snow Mountain. Directly supplying the distillery, these waters seep down through the mineral-rich earth, gathering behind our distillery, as well as running across Yilan’s fertile Lanyang Plain to rejoin the sea.
I would say our subtropical climate in Yilan hugely impacts maturation. 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.
Kavalan gets its water from Snow Mountain and the Central Mountain Range. Can you tell us about those water sources and how it impacts the aromas and flavors and Whiskies?
When you taste Kavalan and experience its trademark creamy mouth-feel, you can thank Snow Mountain. And that sweet hit is mostly the minerals in the water on account of the mineral-rich earth, arising from Yilan’s ancient volcanic activity.
By the time the water, and some snow, has seeped down through tight layers of earth, it ends up incredibly refined, and naturally sweet: packed with minerals like calcium and zinc. This creates optimal conditions for our yeasts to ferment and lends our whisky Kavalan’s signature silky smoothness and silky mouth-feel.
Where does the distillery get its barley from and what kind of yeast do you use in the fermenting process?
The 2-row malted barley we use is from Scandinavia and from other parts of Europe which are mixed together in the mashing process. We also use two kinds of dry yeast, one is to maximise the production yield converting sugar into alcohol, the other is to give the desirable subtropical fruity flavors such as pineapple, banana and green apple.
Can you tell us a bit about the stills Kavalan uses and what makes them so special?
Kavalan Distillery is equipped with 10 pairs of lantern-shaped copper stills with descending lyne arms. We only use a very narrow cut from the spirit run, leaving more foreshots and feints to accommodate a complex and rich flavour profile. The spirit vapors are cooled using shell and tube condensers, but because of the hot climate, subcoolers are also used. We worked with renowned whisky consultant the late Dr. Jim Swan to craft the distillery’s fruity new make, and refine the aging processes in order to yield the best possible whisky in our subtropical climate.
Kavalan recently released the Artist Series Whiskies, which were designed in collaboration with artist Paul Chiang. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the series and if there are any similar projects coming up in the future?
Before starting the project, we brainstormed the definition of “Art” and “Master”.
We thought art can be defined as creating the ultimate expression of beauty. A master means a person who focuses on the goals in mind and pursues the creation of this “ultimate” during his lifetime. The Kavalan Artist Series is to showcase the Kavalan spirits that keep pursuing the “ultimate” in whisky making.
There are similarities between Paul Chiang and Kavalan. Firstly, Paul Chiang and Kavalan are both Taiwan-born and both have expertise in western things. Kavalan’s is in making whisky and Paul Chiang is in western painting. Secondly, we both have achievements in our fields. Our success is acknowledged in other countries not only in Taiwan, and we both pursue this creation of the ultimate in our craft. Thirdly, we share the same belief – that realizing a dream is possible with enough persistence and determination.
I would be happy to say Paul Chiang is the first chapter in the Kavalan Artist Series.
What are your favorite products in the Kavalan range? And how do you like to enjoy them? Do you pair them with anything special?
It’s hard to name my favourite, because it varies with the occasion and my mood.
At the moment, I would say Kavalan Distillery Select is my favourite daily dram. The thing about this whisky is that it’s a classic, quintessential single malt, very pure and creamy and also very versatile, so you can drink it neat or in various whisky cocktails. In it you get the flavours of rich fudge, toffee, and tropical fruitiness. It can pair with almost any dish, especially fish or seafood cuisine. So delicious and refreshing.
When I want to savour a whisky over conversation with a good friend, I will reach for the Solist Port. It’s a single cask strength single malt whisky with powerful rich flavours of berry, orange, citrus notes, chocolate, nuttiness, and wood spices! Its nickname is “liquid chocolate” because of its rich and chewy mouthfeel. This whisky could be well-paired with desserts. In the summertime, you can add some Kavalan Solist Port on a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It will take the ice cream to another level!
Lastly, do you have any unique stories from your time at Kavalan that you would like to share that convey the feelings the Whiskies express?
“Quality comes first” is the key business concept and long-term strategy of Kavalan. We believe that once you have quality, you will only attract more and more drinkers to your whisky. Our mission was to produce whisky of the world’s finest quality. From the logo design, you can see that there is a triple “A” in our brand name ”KAVALAN” which signifies that we insist on making high quality whisky. The distillery’s blending team insists on extracting only the purest of hearts, making a spirit smooth and rich in quality and aromatic in flavour, and recognised as one of the purest in the industry. After ageing in the finest casks for years, the whiskies turn into our world-known Kavalan single malts.
When people taste Kavalan, they may glimpse the influence of something, or someone, huge. It was actually Dr Swan who gave Kavalan its DNA. Dr Swan visited us every year for more than a decade while we were setting up our brand. He was gracious enough to bestow on our then-unknown distillery the genes to grow a world-class brand. For this, we will forever be grateful and humbled. It’s been more than three years now since his passing but there isn’t a day that we at Kavalan don’t talk of, or remember, Dr Swan.
The journey we’ve taken has been unbelievable, and it was the doing of our founders, the Lee family – father and son, hand-in-hand with Dr Swan. He leaves an incredible legacy at Kavalan and indeed around the world.