Kavalan is Taiwan’s first and most decorated distillery, famed the world over for its remarkable and innovative single malt whiskies.
The Kavalan Distillery was built in 2005 by the founder of family-owned food and beverage conglomerate King Car Group, Tien-Tsai Lee. Until 2002, it had not been possible to build a distillery or produce alcohol under Taiwanese restrictions. Quick to monopolise on this change in policy, Lee built the Kavalan distillery in nine months and secured the expertise of industry legend Dr Jim Swan to consult on whisky production. By 2008, the distillery had released its first single malt, inspired by one of Lee’s favourite Scottish whisky producers, The Glenlivet.
The distillery is situated in Yilan County, where the average daytime temperature is over 30°C during the summer months, with humidity levels of 100%. The hot, muggy, oppressive climate has a strong influence on the whisky maturation. Kavalan’s top whiskies reach peak maturation at approximately eight years – in Scotland the same natural maturation process takes closer to 30 years. The downside is that high temperatures and humidity result in higher levels of evaporation prior to bottling and a larger share lost to the angels. Kavalan doesn’t release age-statement whiskies because its bottlings are very young in comparison to producers that are maturing spirit in much cooler climates.
The distillery, which is named after the indigenous people of Yilan, sources water from the Snow Mountain. This is said to give the whisky a creamy mouthfeel. American oak is the distillery’s preferred cask type as European oak can be too astringent and dominate the fruity, oily and complex whisky profile.
From the outset, no expense has been spared at Kavalan. The distillery boasts some of the finest pot stills and state-of-the-art facilities. It is a highly experimental distillery, regularly releasing whiskies that are matured in all manner of vessels, including Amontillado Sherry, Moscato casks and wine barriques.
Kavalan has invested heavily in expertise. In the early days, the distillery hired the world’s leading expert in whisky distillation and maturation, Dr Jim Swan. He continued to advise and consult for Kavalan until his untimely death in 2017. Kavalan was the first distillery to adopt Swan’s STR cask treatment. The process involves shaving the casks to remove undesirable characteristics, before toasting to release desirable fruity notes and lastly re-charring to release rich caramel flavours. This technique was developed during a global shortage of re-fill casks between 2009 and 2013. The first Kavalan whisky produced via this method, Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique, has become highly coveted.
Kavalan has achieved phenomenal success in a relatively short space of time. While Kavalan makes some excellent blended whiskies, its single casks, released at cask strength, are the most sought-after expressions.
Since 2008, the distillery has released award-winning single malts including Kavalan Concertmaster, Solist and Kavalan Distillery Select. The distillery also produces a gin using the same malted barley as the whiskies and locally sourced botanicals, including kumquat, star fruit and red guava.
In 2016, Kavalan built a second distillery on the same site. The new distillery houses 16 stills identical to the original four, increasing Kavalan’s total annual production from 2.5 million to nine million litres of pure alcohol, making them one of the largest distilleries in the world.