"Here at Kavalan, it is aging redefined," states Chang. "It's the heat which really has a huge impact on the maturation and quality."
In 2012, Whiskey author Jim Murray named Kavalan's Solist Fino Sherry Cask his best "New World Whisky of the Year," and three years later Kavalan's Solist Vinho Barrique was named the "World's Best Single Malt Whisky" by the World Whiskies Awards, while five Kavalan whiskies garnered double golds at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition that year. Already in 2016, Kavalan's Solist Amontillado, which hits the U.S. market this fall, was hailed as the "World's Best Single Cask Single Malt" by the World Whiskies Awards. It's an impressive collection of hardware, from some of the most respected awards doled out across the industry. For all their outstanding success however, Kavalan's beginnings were incredibly troubled with challenges and skepticism.
"When we first began, many people were very skeptical," says Yu-Ting Lee, CEO of the King Car Group (which owns Kavalan) and son of Tien-Tsai Lee, who founded King Car in 1956 and dreamed of one day opening a whisky distillery.
"Mr. Lee wanted to have a distillery when he was a young man, but he wasn't able to," explains Ian Chang, Kavalan's master blender. It wasn't as easy as simply getting the funding—private enterprises were barred by the government from opening distilleries until Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2002. Planning for the Kavalan distillery began shortly after.
Yet, as Lee mentioned, the doubters and skeptics were many, and Kavalan needed more than monetary investment. They needed expertise and knowhow. "We contacted 10 consultants, and they turned us down and said it was not possible," explains Lee.
They did find a taker though while the distillery was still in its planning phases: Dr. Jim Swan, a noted whisky consultant and distiller with a PhD in Chemistry and Biological Sciences. Swan helped the distillery find its legs, offering guidance on everything from stills and warehouses, to fermentation and distillation processes.
Kavalan strictly produces single malt whisky, and follows a double distillation system with 12,000-L wash stills and 7,000-L spirit stills. Five more sets of stills are on the way, which will bring their annual production capabilities to a staggering 9 million litres of pure alcohol. That would comfortably place Kavalan in the top 10 of Scotch single malt distilleries in terms of size, in a class approaching industry giants such as the Glenlivet, who happens to have a solid 180-year head start.
Strikingly, what began as Kavalan's biggest challenge has become its secret ingredient - Taiwan's subtropical heat. It's the reason that Lee was told it couldn't be done, and now it's the reason Kavalan is able to supercharge the whisky maturation process, accomplishing in four or six years what might take a Scottish producer 15 or 25 years. The very simple explanation is that heat increases the interaction of the spirit with the wood, leading to more rapid and intense extraction of desired flavor compounds.
"Here at Kavalan, it is aging redefined," states Chang. "It's the heat which really has a huge impact on the maturation and quality." Temperatures routinely hover above 110 degrees in the upper floor of Kavalan's five story warehouses, and the distillery fully capitalizes on that to let nature run its course. "We try to utilize all natural resources ... instead of fighting the heat, we should harness it," adds Chang.
The stifling heat leads to an angel's share which can be as high as 12 to 15 percent. Therefore, not only is the whisky reaching maturation quickly, it's also disappearing rather rapidly as well. Even if Kavalan wanted to age its whisky as long as Scotch producers do—and they don't—the whisky would be exceedingly over-aged for the same reasons; they wouldn't be able to as there would be nothing left in the barrels.
While the area's humidity plays a role in the aging process, it doesn't alter maturation. "Humidity doesn't affect the flavor and maturation, it's the heat which increases extraction," says Chang. Instead, what humidity does is to change the dynamics of that aforementioned angel's share. More alcohol than water is lost, comparatively, which lowers the proof of the whisky over time as opposed to raising it, as is common with bourbon in Kentucky, for instance.
In addition to Taiwan's subtropical environs, Kavalan also chose its precise location thanks to its abundant, clean water source. The nearby Lanyang River happens to have a favorable mineral content, and flows down through the adjacent mountains in an area that previously lacked much industry. "Yilan is a city which is known for its tremendous, high rainfall," explains Chang. "And the region is also known for the very high quality of its water. I believe the first advantage that we have is this natural environment."
All in all, whisky that gets made here could be imitated elsewhere, but it could never be properly replicated. The climate's heavy-handed relationship with the maturation process is entirely unique.