I remember my first taste of Kavalan. It was at a master class during a whisky festival, and Taiwanese whisky was very much a novelty at the time. Since then, Kavalan has gone from strength to strength. Its brand has grown massively, in no small part thanks to the multitude of awards snatched up. So when I marked Taiwan as my next holiday destination, I immediately checked Google Maps to see where the famous Kavalan distillery was located. After a not-so-accidental detour, we found ourselves at the King Car Yuan Shan distillery, as the place is more properly called. The home of such products as Mr. Brown coffee, Buckskin beer, YoGo Fresh yoghurt drinks, and more importantly… Kavalan Single Malt!
We weren’t the only ones there. Far from… Kavalan is in fact the most visited distillery in the world, welcoming around 1.25 million visitors per year. To put this into perspective, Scotland’s best visited distillery (Glengoyne) receives a measly 90.000 visitors annually. In sharp contrast to its tranquil surroundings, Kavalan’s car park was a hustle and bustle of tour buses coming and going, loading and unloading a never-ending stream of tourists. While most of these are ushered onto Chinese language tours, it’s also possible to opt for a self-guided tour. This starts with a small museum, in which multi-lingual signs explain the origins and history of whisky distillation. Next, the initial stages of making whisky are demonstrated, with samples of yeast, barley and grist available, but no malt mill anywhere in sight. Other pieces of distillery hardware are on display as the walking tour continues, with mash tuns and washbacks visible behind glass windows. The distillery now churns out around 9 million litres of raw spirit per year, so I suspect there are a lot more facilities which aren’t visible on the self-guided tour.
The still house was interesting though, not for its multitude of pear shaped pot stills, but for the continuous column stills that are housed in the adjoining room. Typically used for distilling grain whisky, they are not a common sight in single malt distilleries, so they were a welcome curiosity in an otherwise bland tour. That’s not to say that Kavalan isn’t an absolutely fascinating distillery, but unfortunately none of that is explained. Not the fact that Taiwan’s hot temperatures result in an Angel’s Share of up to 15% per year, nor that this means Kavalan’s whiskies mature in as little as 11 months. Nor the amazing fact that the casks in Kavalan’s five-storey warehouse are stacked upright and bundled together to mitigate potential damage from earthquakes. But I can’t blame them… this is simply too much detail for the average tour bus tourist. Kavalan has stated its aim is to educate people about whisky, and given their target group, this means starting with the basics. So I left the tour behind, and went to admire the buildings outside. Set among lush green hills and rice paddies, the distillery premises sure make for a picturesque setting. The familiar sight of the twin pagodas and the scent of malt almost made me feel like I was in Scotland, but then the palm trees and 90% humidity indicated otherwise.
While the tour had been somewhat underwhelming, the tasting was nothing short of spectacular! Much of the bottom floor is taken up by an open space tasting room, complete with interactive tablets and tour guides shouting tasting notes through a megaphone. Fortunately though, a more intimate setting is available upstairs. After getting tickets in the impressive distillery shop (more on that later), we settled down in the tasting lounge. Our host offered us a menu, from which we could choose four whiskies each. The menu included the entire Solist range (up to €300 per bottle), limited edition Distillery Reserve bottlings (Rum Cask and Peaty Cask), as well as the more usual expressions. Given that the ticket had cost just NT$400 (€11), this was amazing value for money. While the Moscatel and Manzanilla Solist bottlings were delicious, my favourite remains the Port Solist, which I was previously familiar with. Although these whiskies appear young with a maturation of under 5 years, the tropical climate increases evaporation and accelerates the whisky’s interaction with the oak casks. This results in a high level of wood influence, while the spirit itself remains fairly feisty. The effect is an intensely rich yet lively whisky, perhaps lacking in subtlety somewhat but bristling with character. It was oh so tempting to go back to the shop and do the tasting all over again, but given that all Solists are bottled at cask strength, caution got the better of me and we decided to check out the distillery shop before heading home.
Kavalan’s distillery shop is one of a kind, even aside from the fact that it stacks Mr. Brown coffee machines on the same shelves as collector’s item whiskies. Most whisky brands don’t bottle a whole lot of miniatures. I suppose the limited off-take and cost of packaging make it quite an unattractive proposition for most distillers. But then Kavalan isn’t like most distilleries. With over a million visitors passing through its store each year, Kavalan offers whisky in all shapes and sizes, from 5cl minis to half or quarter sized bottles. You can even put together your own gift packs, and some of the whiskies are available in multiple kinds of packaging. Samples are placed next to each whisky, allowing you to nose each dram before you decide to make a purchase. And given the frankly bizarre number of bottles that disappear into the tour buses on the parking lot, Kavalan’s investment is undoubtedly paying off.
Although Kavalan is increasingly going global, it was great to see the no-longer-so-humble home of this Taiwanese distilling giant. I had a fantastic time at the distillery, but truth be told that was largely due to the main thing that makes whisky so wonderful… the whisky itself!