Kavalan at Whisky Lounge Manchester 2011

Part of my Christmas break always involves time on a train and due to a singular lack of easily readable books under the tree this year I am instead resorting to taking up more than my fair share of the communal table with my laptop to do a bit of catching up with the bits of my notebook that I haven’t got round to yet this year. This entry has been several months in coming and it’s a bit shaming that I haven’t done it earlier, as it’s about a quite important whisky tasting – Kavalan at The Whisky Lounge Festival in Manchester.

I’ve written a bit about Kavalan before but haven’t had a chance to try any more of their whiskies since then, so when Eddie Ludlow announced that he’d achieved a bit of a coup and got the distillery to exhibit at his Manchester show plans began to be made. I booked cheap train tickets to Manchester, getting there bright and early, and had a ticket home all in place when Eddie announced part two of his plan – Kavalan Master Blender Ian Chang would also be leading a tasting of the Kavalan range. A new return ticket was bought, the previous one departing 10 minutes before the start of the tasting, and plans to fill in a long morning of wandering around Manchester before the afternoon whisky session started to foment.

In the end it all went rather well – I wandered the streets of Manchester, ate a greasy breakfast, bought some new shoes, leeched Apple store wifi and then propped up the bar at the Marble Arch in an act of long overdue pilgrimage until it was time for whisky. A hastily grabbed ‘meal’ of scotch pancakes and scotch eggs later and I was through the door and into the hall for a quick circuit before the tasting started.

Ian Chang
Ian Chang is not this blurry in real life

Ian Chang is Kavalan’s Master Blender, having studied food science and technology at the University of Reading. His employer is King Car, owned by the much mentioned and fabled Mr TT Lee, one of the biggest food and drink companies in east Asia, based in Taiwan. Back in January 2002 they started planning their next project, building a distillery, buoyed along by Taiwan’s new membership of the World Trade Organisation and the relaxing of rules around brewing and distilling that had previously limited production to state owned companies.

They chose the location carefully, extending King Car’s mineral water bottling facility that sat near the junction of Taiwan’s Snow and Central mountain ranges. The distillery’s name comes from that of the indigenous people, who also leant their name to the area until 1809, which appealed to Mr TT Lee, who grew up nearby. They started construction in April 2005, finishing in December and then installing the distilling gear and doing production test runs until March 2006. The first proper run of new make spirit tok place at 3:30pm on March 11th 2006.

KavalanThe distillery is now a bit of a tourist destination, opening up their tours on December 4th 2008, the same day that they released their Kavalan Classic. They operate 365 days per year, don’t charge for the tour and pull in between 2k and 5k people per day – 1million people in 2010 and 2.6million by October 2011. In comparison Glenfiddich, one of the busiest Scottish distilleries, has about 100k visitors per year…

All the production at Kavalan is single malt and the whole manufacturing process was put together in association with legendary whisky consultant Dr Jim Swan (who hid at the back of the room during the tasting, volunteering an occasional comment), also known for helping start Penderyn in Wales. They import their malt from Europe (predominantly Scandinavia at the moment) as it’s too hot in Taiwan to grow and malt grain, a theme which is repeated throughout the production process. Their mash tun was imported from Rothes, in Speyside, and they seem to do a fairly regular mash, although rather than feeding the draff (spent grains) to cattle or pigs they instead press it into crackers, which are sold by King Car as people-food. They use stainless steel fermentation tanks, double skinned to aid in temperature control as the sub-tropical climate of Taiwan is far from ideal for making beer.

Ian didn’t go into their distillation itself but the next, and potentially most interesting piece, is maturation. The biggest problem with making whisky in Taiwan is the heat, as it’s a rather different climate to Scotland where most of the whisky distilling expertise is centred and they had to do a lot of research to find out how to make whisky without fighting nature too much. With yearly temperatures ranging from 10°c to 38°c the Angel’s Share is rather higher than the 2-3% you get in Scotland, coming in instead at 15-20% of evaporation per year, meaning that they can’t keep the whisky in the cask for long simply as a matter of logistics – after 5 or 6 years there’s not all that much left in there. Luckily the legal minimum for whisky maturation in Taiwan is just 2 years.

Kavalan Lineup

The first whisky we tried was Kavalan Classic, their regular single malt. It picked up the IWSC Best in Class award in 2011, having won a silver for the previous few years. It uses six different cask types in its makeup – refill and first fill bourbon, sherry and a variety of wine casks. They don’t use much in the way of sherry in the Classic, as the heat brings out too much tannin from the casks, which could overpower the quite delicate whisky. On the nose it was floral and fruity, with plasticine and glue, mango (the tropical fruit note that is the distillery’s main characteristic flavour) and sour grape. To taste there was vanilla, butter, cinnamon and sweet sponge cake. The finish was short, with light sweet butter and some light sweet oak. Not a massively complicated dram but nice and easy to drink.

Next on the mat was Concertmaster, a 40% ABV mix of refill and first fill bourbon matured whisky that is finished in port barriques. It’s ‘only’ picked up silver medals so far, as well as a Malt Maniacs “Cask Innovation” award in 2010, but they’re still developing and tweaking the mix as they get more spirit maturing in the warehouses. On the nose there was pungent honey, candy floss, a rich sweetness, sugared raisins and vanilla sugar. To taste it started out with cloves, which led to a light and sugary liqueur-like body rounded out with sweet and sour fruit. It finished medium-long with sweet vanilla wood.

Third on the mat was the Solist Bourbon, the companion whisky to the one I wrote about last time, which is now sold out. The series is a range of single cask whiskies, unchillfiltered and released at cask strength, making for some more extreme drams than the regular output of the distillery (the Solist Sherry is still one of the most outrageous whiskies I’ve ever tried). They’ve got an eye on distributing their whiskies in Europe, but currently have some trademark issues to work through, and as such have been looking to push maturation to 3 years (the legal minimum as set by the SWA), difficult as it is in the Taiwanese climate – this is one of the first whiskies to hit that age. It was launched on 5th August 2009 and has since won a stack of awards, including an IWSC silver, ISC Gold and WWA Best of the Rest of the World. On the nose this is classic bourbon cask matured malt – vanilla, coconut, uncooked cake batter, cinnamon and caramelised bananas. To taste it’s quite drying and tannic, but also full of caramel, lemon sherbert, apples and custard. A drop of water knocks out some of the sweetness (and cask strength burn) and adds some more sour apple and a hint of menthol. The flavours hang around for a bit, with lemony air freshener and butter fading to dry and tannic wood.

Last whisky of the night was the Vinho, one of their more recent releases showing off their wood management. The casks are made from slow growing American oak (in a similar fashion to Glenmorangie’s Astar) and the planks are seasoned outside for 24 months, open to the elements. The casks are then assembled and used to mature a variety of wines before they are emptied and shipped to Taiwan ready for whisky. Before use the barrel staves are planed to remove most of the wine soaked wood, reassembled, toasted and then recharred, in a more extreme than usual dechar/rechar process. In theory with high temperatures the planing back of the wood should allow fruity flavours to develop without becoming overpowering, as well as giving some more first fill character. The whisky poured a deep reddy brown, more reminiscent of European oak and sherry casks, and had a nose of rich fruit, black liquorice, red wine, dried cherry, marzipan and apricot heavy tagine. To taste it had big sherry flavours, black liquorice and sticky sugared raisins leading into a long finish of more raisins, sweet red grapes and cinnamon. A successful experiment.

As yet there isn’t an importer for Kavalan outside of Asia, although they are working on it and I hope they sort something soon – their whiskies are pretty good and it’d be great to be able to taste them without finding an Asia bound whisky mule…

Kavalan Classic
Taiwanese Single Malt Whisky, 40%.

Kavalan Concertmaster
Taiwanese Single Malt Whisky, 40%.

Kavalan Solist Bourbon
Taiwanese Single Malt Whisky, ?%.

Kavalan Vinho
Taiwanese Single Malt Whisky, 40%.

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