Taiwan’s rapid ascent as a top whisky-producing nation has been astonishing in its speed and its fortitude, led by the success of Kavalan Whisky (Taiwan’s first ever whisky distillery, and currently one of only two in the country). Overcoming all odds in an industry where “slow and steady” traditionally wins the race, the 11-year-old producer’s wonderfully rich and complex whiskies continue to gain traction around the world, beating out leading whiskies from longstanding producers in countries such as Scotland, Ireland and Japan in blind taste tests.
It all started when Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2002, thus relaxing tightly held government controls and opening the doors for the first independent whisky distillery to set up shop in the small island nation. Despite the hurdles (Kavalan was turned down by 10 independent consultants in its initial R&D phase), the distillery was up and running in a record-breaking nine months, producing its very first drop on 11 March 2006. Since then, Kavalan has amassed a record 220 gold medals and counting at international whisky competitions. The key factor to its success? Turning Taiwan’s subtropical heat (previously regarded as a weakness) into its strongest advantage, expediting the whisky-producing process and intensifying the flavour compounds of the blend.
With Kavalan’s Master Blender, Ian Chang, in town to promote Kavalan’s current mooncake collaboration with InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong (HK$468 per 3-piece box, purchase through 4 October here), we took the opportunity to chat to the global ambassador of the brand about what makes a great whisky and reflect on Kavalan’s meteoric rise in the spirits world.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you got started in the whisky business.
I was born in Yilan where the distillery is [an hour southeast of Taipei]. I spent 8-9 years studying in the UK (trying to avoid the mandatory National Service in Taiwan), but after realising I would have to stay there until I was 37 years old in order to avoid it altogether, I came back and did the service for two years. After that I started working with my father in China at his own small business. When he had a pretty serious stroke, we had to shut down the business and move back to Taiwan.
At that time I was really worried and also in a state of shock because suddenly we had lost the big pillar of our home who was our main source of financial income. I remember very clearly one night I was rather depressed and searching for job opportunities on the internet at 3am in the morning when I saw that King Car Group, which is the company that owns Kavalan, were looking for someone to be the R&D guy for their new distillery (at that time it wasn’t called a blender, but an R&D person). I thought since I had done my degree in food science, which is somewhat relatable to whisky, I’d send in my CV. Three weeks later, someone contacted me.
What was the job interview process like?
The very first question they asked was if I had any prior experience in the alcoholic beverages industry and of course, my answer was no. I thought that would be the end of the interview, but then he asked me if I’d like to go in for a test to see if I could differentiate different flavours, or what they call, notes. It was interesting because ever since I was young I always thought that my sensory ability was very good, so I decided to give it a try.
He gave me 15 different notes with the rule that you can only nose it once and then write down what you think the descriptor was. It’s quite challenging because even when we find the smell of something is very familiar, it can be very difficult to put it down in words. So what I did was to use very basic descriptors like “wu liang ye” (a Chinese white spirit) or phrases like, “it smells like a Chinese wardrobe” or something like that. Apparently, I ended up getting the highest score because the other candidates just left it blank when they didn’t know what to write. To be honest, when it comes to sensory just trust your instinct and it’s usually right.
What was the training period like?
I trained in the UK and Scotland for a few years, learning how to distill, how to maintain the production quality, how to blend whisky and so on. The first two years I was studying most of the time with our consultant, Jim Swan, who unfortunately passed away this year in February. He was my mentor who really taught me everything about whisky and also non-whisky as well — that is, life in general. He’s been the person who was really influential in terms of Kavalan’s style of whisky but also how we behave in the industry and so on. Time really flies, it’s been 12 years now with Kavalan and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to grow with the distillery. If I can be with the company for another 25 years I’ll be happy enough to retire and hand the baton to the next person.
Tell us a bit about how Kavalan started and what makes it so unique?
Our Chairman Mr. Lee — who’s 80 years old this year — always wanted to have his own distillery but he couldn’t do so because of Taiwan’s regulations. When the laws were relaxed in 2002, Mr. Lee wasted no time in setting up a team of people to go to the whisky producing regions of Scotland, Ireland, America and Japan to gather information. In 2005, we were ready to start construction on Kavalan, which took us just nine months to build (usually distilleries take at least 5-6 years). The very first drop of our new label spirit was produced on the 11th of March, 2006, precisely at 3:30pm — that was a historic moment not just for Kavalan but for Taiwan.
What makes Kavalan really unique is that because of the subtropical weather our whisky matures much faster in the heat which means in terms of extraction, all these chemical components go from the oak wood into the spirit in less time, making it more intense with greater flavour and complexity.
Has Kavalan paved the way for other distilleries to follow suit in Taiwan?
Yes, three years ago, our government realised that Kavalan can make it in Taiwan in the heat so they started their own distillery called Nantou, which is based in Nantou County in the central part of Taiwan. What’s different between the two I would say is mainly to do with water and also the climate, it’s drier in Nantou. One of the most influential factors on the quality of whisky is the cask, and when it comes to cask I think Nantou still has some ways to go to master what type of cask to use to suit their weather, and to suit the style of their new make spirit and so on. So it’s still in the phase of development. But yes, we anticipate in the future there will be more and more distilleries.
What is your role as the Master Blender for Kavalan?
I always say to people, blending is a fancy word for quality control — my job is to control the consistency of our product and have good fermentation and good maturation all the time. For example, you take some of these whisky brands, sometimes you can find a bottle that is amazing and with really good complexity but then another batch is quite flat. What we try to do is to make sure that consumers cannot detect that in Kavalan.
It is also my job to source out quality oak casks from around the world. We are very lucky that through the introduction of Jim Swan, at a time when it was very difficult for distillers to find sherry casks in Spain, we managed to buy from a reliable supplier who not only produces his own oak casks but also his own sherry wines — that way our quality for sherry casks can be fully controlled by a single supplier.
Can you tell us about the different Kavalan whisky types?
We have three types of single malt whiskies: the Classic is made by blending different types of casks including the aforementioned sherry. The Concertmaster is a whisky which is finished in certain types of wine casks, for example, right now we have the Concertmaster Port with a pork cask finish, and in the future we will have more types such as madeira. The third is the Solist, which means we don’t do any blend or finish, we simply select the casks within batches so that consumers can have consistent cask strength whisky without too much in terms of fluctuation or variance.
Are you experimenting with new blends?
Before Jim Swan passed away, I used to travel with him extensively throughout the world, always on the lookout for casks that have been used by local producers, whether wines or spirits, so that we can buy them and bring back to Taiwan for experiments. Earlier this year we went to Nicaragua where there is a famous producer of rum, very well known in the Caribbean. With their quality rum casks in combination with our new make we managed to create something very unique which is our Kavalan Distillery Reserve Rum Cask. Because of it’s limited quantity, it’s only available at the distillery.
What do you look for in a great quality whisky?
To be honest, I wouldn’t say there’s the so-called best whisky in the world or the worst in the world, it’s all to do with personal preference. However, as a judge at IWSC (International Wine and Spirits Competition), the quality that I look for first is complexity, which means it’s very rich and flavoursome in terms of “xiangqi,” or aroma. Also you don’t want any off flavours or off notes — if the judge detects any sulphur, you can have a very low score. Personally I always try to make sure that Kavalan is clean, complex, and diverse in terms of flavours with multiple layers.
That’s why we are also very honoured to do this mooncake partnership with InterContinental Grand Stanford this year: By introducing the three styles of Kavalan whiskies — the Classic, the Solist Ex-Bourbon and the Solist Amontillado — to the chocolate mooncakes, it adds extra flavour and dimensions, introducing complexity so hopefully consumers can enjoy both the together.
What's the best way to enjoy whisky?
It depends on the purpose. If it is during a competition what we do is we add only water because it opens up the flavours so that you can nose all the different floral and fruity notes; but when it comes to casual drinking pleasures, for example today in Tiffany’s New York Bar, if we are just chatting over glasses of whisky perhaps adding ice would be a good choice, or ice and water at the same time.
Once again I think this is all to do with personal preferences and also how you want to appreciate the whisky. I remember drinking with Jim we used to drink the cask strength Solist, savouring it slowly over a long chat without any water. It could also depend on the weather: for example, the reason why our Solist does very well in Northern European countries such as Denmark and Finland is because of the cold weather, they like to drink cask strength at home in front of the fireplace.
What's your advice for those looking to become more knowledgeable on whisky?
The best way is to try different varieties whether it’s single malt or blended malt or grain whisky even — try to look for the differences because that’s what makes whisky so interesting and really great to appreciate, that there is such a huge diversity in terms of flavour. Also by nosing as well — we always say that nosing is like speaking a language, the more you practice, the more you can detect all these different notes from whiskies. As long as someone is interested and passionate, he/she can be trained to sharpen their ability of detecting all these different notes.