A Look into Kavalan and the Rise of Taiwanese Whisky


In the world of whisky, there’s a new star on the rise, and it’s predicted to soar even higher. With the current boom in global whisky consumption, all eyes are on the newest contender: Taiwanese whisky. Taiwan is making waves with their malts, with the island producing millions of bottles a year. The accolades are pouring in too, with whisky drinkers all over the world singing praises for these subtropical whiskies.

Unlike Scotch whisky, Taiwanese whisky is very new. While some Scotch distilleries have been operating for centuries already, Taiwanese whisky was born only this 2006, when the Kavalan Distillery was built. The very first and currently the most prominent Taiwanese whisky is Kavalan, which is under the food and logistics conglomerate King Car Group. Taiwan loves its whisky, with the island coming in as the world’s third largest consumer of single malts after the US and France. This love for whisky is what served as the push that would make King Car Group create Kavalan.

Kavalan, Taiwan’s pioneer whisky

Kavalan Distillery began its operations in 2006, making it Taiwan’s pioneering whisky distillery. Kavalan is the fruit of Tien‐Tsai Lee’s ambition.  Tien‐Tsai Lee is the founder of King Car Group, and it was his dream to make world-class whisky in a distillery that would last for generations just like the ones in Scotland. He quickly got to work, putting together a team and seeking the guidance of the late Dr. Jim Swan to make his dream a reality. He then chose Yilan County as the location for his distillery. The name Kavalan was taken from the old name of Yilan County, which is also the name of the indigenous people who once inhabited it. To create their whiskies, the distillery makes use of high quality barley and mineral-rich snowmelt water. The ingredients go through the usual process of milling and mashing, after which the resulting mash would be fermented then double-distilled. Finally, the spirit is left to mature until it’s ready to be bottled.

Since its establishment, Kavalan has won around 220 awards both for the distillery and for their whiskies, including top awards from prestigious competitions like the International Wine and Spirits Competition, International Whisky Competition, and San Francisco World Spirits Competition, among others. Today, Kavalan is available in 60 different countries, and its growth is showing no signs of slowing down.

Challenges behind the climate

Creating whisky in Taiwan’s subtropical climate is no easy feat. All whisky is more or less made in the same way. The grain is processed, fermented, distilled, and most importantly, aged. Both the casks and length of maturation play a big role in the taste and character of the final product. The consensus is that the longer it is matured, the better it tastes, which is why people around the world value the age statements of whiskies so much. People are willing to fork out a significant amount for bottles with “25 Years” or “30 Years” on them.

When it comes to whisky maturation, the climate of Taiwan proves to be both a blessing and a challenge. With the highest average temperatures going up to 33 to 34 degrees, a lot of whisky is lost to the “angel’s share,” or evaporation during the ageing period. While Scotch whiskies only lose around 2% of liquid volume a year, Taiwanese whiskies can lose up to 15%. The heat and humidity also make the whisky mature at a faster rate. If Kavalan and other Taiwanese whisky producers were to make whiskies with age statements that go from 10 years and above, they run the risk of losing too much whisky and even over-ageing them. This is why producers have refocused their goals and used the island’s climate to their advantage.

On the flip side, faster maturation means more profits. For other whisky producers, the spirit has to sit and mature for at least 3 years or much more. For some producers, their best-sellers are aged 10 years and above, which means a lot of their profits are tied up in inventory. This isn’t a problem for Taiwanese whisky producers. In the case of Kavalan, their first ever whisky was released in 2008, just 2 years after the distillery began operations. Technically, due to the faster rate of maturation, a Taiwanese whisky matured in four to six years can already be compared with Scotch or other whiskies aged around 15 years. Even though the maturation periods differ, the quality and complexity are the same.

What makes Kavalan stand out

For Kavalan, instead of focusing on age statements, they focused instead on the other essential aspect of whisky maturation: casks. With the guidance of the late whisky consultant Dr. Jim Swan, Kavalan has experimented with a wide range of new and re-fill cask types to find out the different flavours that they would impart on the whisky. Just like other distilleries, Kavalan uses new casks or casks that previously contained bourbon or sherry. However, they also venture into lesser-used cask types, like those that previously contained Manzanilla or Fino sherry. The distillery’s masterful use of wood helped create their whiskies’ distinct character and unique flavour profile. Kavalan whiskies are known for their fruity flavours, oily mouthfeel, and remarkable complexity for their age.

Must-try Malts from Kavalan

If you’re looking to experience the unique taste of Taiwanese whisky, grabbing a bottle of Kavalan is the right way to start. Here are some whiskies from the brand that you can try:

Kavalan Manzanilla Cask Whisky

Ex-Manzanilla casks are used in the maturation of this unique and delicate whisky. The resulting malt boasts of coastal notes as well as flavours of honeydew melon, orange, vanilla, mint, toffee, cocoa, and cider.

Kavalan Podium Whisky

This is another award-winning malt from the brand’s range. Kavalan Podium Whisky is matured in a combination of new American oak casks and re-fill casks. The resulting whisky is as delicate as it is complex, with notes of fruits, flowers, vanilla, coconut, and spices.

Kavalan Ex-Sherry Oak Whisky

This permanent addition to Kavalan’s range takes the Kavalan Solist Sherry Matured whiskies and brings them down to 46% ABV. It’s rich, complex, and flavoursome, with notes of dried fruit, red fruits, spices, flowers, dark chocolate, and nuts.

Kavalan Solist Bourbon Cask Whisky

In 2015, this whisky received the topmost award in its category at the International Spirits Challenge. This exceptional malt is matured in American ex-bourbon casks and is bottled at cask strength, resulting in remarkable complexity and balance. Each sip will bring you notes of tropical fruit, vanilla, coconut, and spices.

Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask Whisky

Fino is the driest and palest out of all varieties of sherry. Thus, whiskies that are aged in ex-Fino casks also bear the same qualities. Solist Fino Sherry Cask is dry and bright, bursting with fruity sherry notes as well as touches of toffee and chocolate.

Kavalan Solist Pedro Ximenez Cask

Kavalan Solist Pedro Ximenez Cask is made by maturing whisky in casks that used to hold Pedro Ximenez sherry. The resulting whisky is sweet and fruity, with notes of pineapple, fruitcake, dried fruits as well as lemongrass, cardamom, and walnut.

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