When thinking of world-class cocktail culture places like Singapore, New York, and London usually sit at the forefront of people's minds, as these locales boast some of the best bars in the world. What many may not know is that Taiwan is home to plenty of world-class drinking, from award-winning microbrews to celebrated whiskey—all with a history dating back over one hundred years.
From 1895 to 1945, Taiwan was a colonial holding of the Japanese emperor. Today, Japanese cultural products are weaved into everyday life, from anime to sushi, and pachinko gambling to sake. As the third largest importer of Japanese sake, Taiwan has an affinity for the Japanese spirit, but also makes plenty of their own. Hatsukiri, a sake made in the western city of Taichung, in an area known for its fragrant rice, is fantastic. The Taoyuan Brewery, in the far north of Taiwan, is also known for its high-quality varieties.
Close to sake but distinctly Taiwanese is a local liquor called kaoliang. Similar to its white lightening Chinese cousin baijiu, kaoliang is made from fermented sorghum, and aged. Unlike baijiu, it goes down smooth, with sweet-sour notes. Kinmen, a sleepy Taiwanese-governed isle off the coast of Fujian province in China, is famous for its kaoliang, which won gold in the white spirits category at the 2018 International Spirits Challenge. The nearby Matsu archipelago also boasts great stuff. There, on the Isle of Nankan, you can buy a bottle from the Matsu Distillery called Tunnel 88 Kaoliang, aged five years in an abandoned military tunnel.
Perhaps where Taiwanese spirits shine brightest is in its whiskey. Besides a government-owned distillery, there is only one game in town: Kavalan. Since it started bottling in 2008, Kavalan has received dozens of awards, beating out, rather surprisingly, Scottish, American, and Japanese brands. In 2015, its Solist Vinho Barrique was named the World's Best Single Malt Whiskey by the World Whiskies Awards. That same year, five of its bottles garnered double golds at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Behind the impressive operation is Ian Chang, Kavalan’s 43-year-old baby-faced master blender. “A good whiskey should have complexities,” he said one recent night in Taipei. “It’s all about the balance overall, without off-notes.”
Kavalan’s massive distillery, which produces about 9 million liters a year, is well worth a visit. Located in the picturesque coastal county of Yilan, an hour or so by car from the hustle and bustle of Taipei, the complex is surrounded by verdant mountains with a scenic lake and a rare orchid garden on-site. Between whiskey tasting, touring the operation, and DIY blending, one can spend hours there; it has won ‘Visitor Attraction of the Year’ in the World Whisky Awards two years running. Bottles are sold all over the island (Kavalan itself has two dozen of its own retail stores) and the Taiwanese are generally quite proud of this much-coveted whiskey. In Yilan, you can enjoy it with your meal at the Formosa Pearl, a stupendous restaurant within an artfully restored traditional teahouse. In Taipei, check out Marsalis Home & Whiskey Gallery, a suave cocktail bar on the third floor of the regal Home Hotel.
Like other strong economies of East Asia, Taiwan is also home to a burgeoning craft beer scene. Zhang Men Brewing Company, in Taipei, has a wide selection of brews, from IPAs to cream ales. For less conventional beers, check out Taiwan Head Brewers’ tea ale, called Rainwater, which was voted the Best Experimental Beer in the World Beer Awards 2016. And Taihu Brewing, another must-sip, has a line of fruit-infused beers, with names like Guava Noon and Yuzu Midnight. It can be visited in Taipei also, but if you find yourself elsewhere, look out for their vintage traveling Airstream, which is equipped with eighteen taps. Wherever you are in Taiwan, you’ll want to make time for a drink.