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It is hot inside the Kavalan warehouse. Really, really hot. About 108 degrees at the very top, actually: A far cry from the 60-degree summers in Scotland, where most of Kavalan’s competitors are created.
The heat is one of the main reasons Yu-Ting Lee, the CEO of Kavalan’s parent company, King Car Group, encountered plenty of naysaying when he embarked on his distillery project in Taiwan twelve years ago. Everyone said making good single malt wasn’t possible due to the environmental conditions here: swampy, subtropical, lush.
And yet, here in Yilan County, about 40 miles southeast of Taipei, Kavalan is making some of the most delicately floral and fruity, rich and nuanced whisky in the world. Just four years after its first whisky was laid—at 3:30 p.m. on March 11, 2006, to be precise—Kavalan beat four other whiskies (three Scottish, one English) in a blind taste test in Edinburgh as part of Burns Night, an annual Scotch-soaked celebration of Scotland’s national poet. It was the whisky world’s own Judgment of Paris moment, and from there Kavalan quickly racked up prizes from the World Whisky Awards, the International Review of Spirits, and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Today the distillery’s Classic, Concertmaster, King Car Conductor, and Solist series expressions claim more than 100 accolades from contests held all over the world.
Kavalan is on the fast track, quite literally. Their whiskies mature in a fraction of the time it might take in a colder climate—some say 4–5 years for an expression that might take 10–12 to develop in Scotland. To achieve the maximum amount of flavor in such a short amount of time, the distillery employs a few tricks, courtesy of the late superstar whisky consultant Dr. Jim Swan. Instead of fighting the subtropical climate, the distillery embraces it, closing the windows in the warehouse from June to October to better trap the heat. The result is that the whiskies interact with their wood barrels at a turbo-charged rate, picking up all sorts of flavors and aromas from the ex-bourbon casks, sherry butts, and various wine barrels Kavalan uses. The brand also ferments with two specific strains of yeast: one that results in a high alcohol yield and a second that imparts the fruity, floral flavors Lee and his master blender Ian Chang aim for. Lastly, Kavalan only use a very narrow cut of the distillate, leaving less heads and more tails than many of their competitors.
Whisky aficionados are taking note. Tommy Tardie, owner of the Flatiron Room and Fine and Rare in Manhattan, both considered destination bars for lovers of the spirit (the Flatiron Room alone stocks over 1,000 different kinds from all over the world), has been a fan of Kavalan for a while—though he’s had a hard time keeping bottles of it in stock at his bars. He suspects that as the brand’s reach expands and more drinkers discover it, it will only disappear from shelves even faster. “Kavalan is one of the brands to watch,” he says. “When I teach classes, people will say, ‘Wow, this is really good,’ and I say, ‘Yes, well, buy it now.’”
Thus far, the brand has been mostly focused on growing their market in Taiwan and Europe, so some of their most exciting whiskies have yet to reach the United States. But that’s about to change as of this month, when six new expressions from their Solist series arrive stateside. These new-to-the-U.S. bottles are all single barrel, cask strength single malts aged in different sherry and Port barrels, a process that imbues the spirits with alluringly nutty, fruity overtones. There’s an Amontillado (winner of the World Whiskies Awards’ World's Best Single Cask Single Malt Whisky of 2016), a Manzanilla, a Fino, a Moscatel, a Pedro Ximénez, and a Port. Generally matured for 5–9 years, the whiskies emerge from the barrels with the depth of single malts twice their age, boasting assertive wine-like flavor profiles that range from delicately floral with a slight salinity (the Manzanilla) to lush sweetness with overtones of marzipan and dried fruits (the PX).
Experts are divided when it comes to the question of whether distilled spirits display terroir, and if so, how much. But it’s hard to imagine that bottles like these could be made anywhere else. The spirit inside, fruity and bright, evokes the heat and humidity, the thick air and clear spring water of Yilan County. And any one of them makes a unique, conversation-starting addition to your home bar. If history is any indication, they’ll go quickly—so snag a few bottles for yourself while you can.
Kavalan Solist Amontillado Sherry Single Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky
750ml, 50-60 percent ABV; $599; kavalanwhisky.com.
Kavalan Solist Manzanilla Sherry Single Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky
750ml; 50-60 percent ABV; $599; kavalanwhisky.com.
Kavalan Solist Moscatel Sherry Single Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky
750ml; 50-60 percent ABV; $599; kavalanwhisky.com.
Kavalan Solist PX Sherry Single Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky
750ml; 50-60 percent ABV; $699; kavalanwhisky.com.
Kavalan Solist Port Single Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky
750ml; 50-60 percent ABV; $299; kavalanwhisky.com.