Taiwan: The whiskies to try and bars to visit

Taiwan: The whiskies to try and bars to visit

Taiwan’s taste for single malt Scotch is underpinning the growth of a new generation of whisky educators, producers and consumers

Regional Focus | 19 Dec 2022 | Issue 187 | By Steven Parker

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The one thing I can usually be certain of as I meet people from other parts of the world is that what they think they know about Taiwan is almost inevitably not true.” This is the view of Mike Cottingham, founder of Cottingham, the first company in Taiwan to import international alcohol brands, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2022. Mike was speaking in general, but his words ring especially true in the world of whisky. Taiwan is a gold-medal winning, high-end drinking mecca.

Taiwan is the world’s third largest export market by value for Scotch whisky, behind the US and France, according to figures from 2020 from the Scotch Whisky Association. By volume, however, it doesn’t even appear in the top 10. This is in part due to the fact that the Taiwanese buy more high-value Scotch than any other market in the world. “A 12-year-old bottle of Scotch is considered standard here, [and] 18-year-old is entry level,” jokes Mike.

Taiwan’s drinking culture has evolved markedly over the last 30 years, driven principally by four key factors: changing demographics, Taiwan’s passion for learning, the rise of the influencer, and the emergence of home-grown brands.

In any industry that has seen significant evolution, there are trailblazers behind the changes. In Taiwan’s whisky world, Stephen Lin is one of those trailblazers. David Pan, himself a whisky influencer, refers to Lin as “Taiwan’s whisky godfather”. “His whisky club raised a whole new generation of whisky instructors, and his books changed the way we think about whisky.”

Taiwanese whisky commentator David Pan

Lin has been talking and writing about whisky in Taiwan for more than three decades. His influence on the drinks industry cannot be overestimated. As well as being an author and YouTuber, he is the owner of Taipei whisky bars L’arriere-Cour and Backyard Jr., which offer more than 2,000 high-end and unique whiskies to a growing but discerning audience.

However, influencers such as Lin are just one reason for the modern Taiwan whisky scene’s increasing prominence and sophistication. Pan explains, “Previous generations were enjoying whisky in more social settings – gift giving, social gatherings, demonstrating social status, etc. – whereas the younger generation are keen to learn about the story behind the brands, as well as the whisky-making process, and the different distilleries, whisky brands and flavours. There is a strong community that is connected in a very close way via social media.” Pan’s own YouTube channel, GDirector’s Talk, has 12,000 followers, and Taiwan’s passion for whisky helped him in promoting the documentary The Water of Life to select but sell-out crowds across Taiwan.

As Pan says, drinking is not a part of everyday life in Taiwan the way it is in Europe, but the generations of Taiwanese who studied overseas to become engineers, doctors, and lawyers, to make their parents proud, brought about a mixing of cultures. When they returned, they brought back knowledge of things that are not taught in school: they wanted a quality of life and a social life that was more reflective of the world they had experienced overseas. The era of the cocktail and whisky bar had begun.

The Drunken Masters Whisky Bar in Taipei, Taiwan

Allen Cheng, celebrity bartender and both winner and judge of cocktail competitions, saw the changing environment and made his choice to become a professional bartender.

Now, 17 years on, he is the owner of thriving Taipei bars Fourplay and Drizzle by Fourplay and is at the forefront of the new upscale drinking revolution in Taiwan. “Taiwanese are incredibly knowledgeable about whisky,” says Cheng, a globetrotter who has tended guests in Europe, Asia, and the US. “What separates Taiwan consumers in my experience is their desire for knowledge. Taiwanese want to know about what they are drinking. It’s a cliché but we are really very good students!”

This depth of knowledge has created a passion for independent bottling. Li Chun Feng, owner of The Drunken Master Whisky Bar and an independent bottler himself, says that the love of education has played an important role in the rise of independent bottling: “Taiwanese know their whiskies. They seek out good offerings and are looking for something unique or rare.”

This has generated a vibrant market for independent bottlers, especially from the UK. World-leading independent bottlers such as Gordon & MacPhail, Douglas Laing, and Signatory have seen their sales in Taiwan grow year-on-year over the last few years, seemingly unaffected by the pandemic. This makes Taiwan a paradise for the consumer, as a casual trip to one of its 1,500 or so liquor stores could result in finding anything from a 13-year-old customised bottling to a whisky laid down in the 1940s.

Taipei whisky bar Drizzle

Exhibitions and tastings are common and well attended. Influencer, radio personality and long-time lover of whisky Otto Lai shared that his Exhibition O’Whisky had “over 2,000 people attending and more than 80 brands of whisky on display”, while the largest annual whisky exhibition, Whisky Live, returning in 2022 after a pandemic layover, anticipated more than 5,000 enthusiastic attendees at its October show.
At the same time as Taiwan’s passion for (primarily) Scottish whisky has blossomed, we have also seen the remarkably successful development
of a Taiwanese distilling industry, which is gaining recognition both at home and internationally.

Production of alcoholic beverages was the exclusive preserve of Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Corp (TTL), the state-owned monopoly, until Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2002. That event proved to be a watershed. Firstly, tariffs on imported spirits were slashed, creating the basis for the transformation of Taiwan into one of the most sophisticated Scotch whisky markets in the world. Secondly, companies other than TTL were allowed to produce alcoholic drinks.

The first to set up a local distilling operation was King Car Group. A household products manufacturer, King Car moved into producing bottled drinks and canned coffee in 1979, then turned to whisky in 2005 and built the Kavalan Distillery in Yilan, about an hour from Taipei. The first spirit emerged from the stills in March 2006 and the first bottles were released in late 2008.

Located close to Xueshan (Snow Mountain), the distillery takes its name from the old moniker of Yilan County. The site was chosen for its ready access to fresh water and for its subtropical climate, which, during the winter months, is cooler than most other parts of the island. Summers, however, are hot and humid, leading to much quicker maturation than in a more temperate climate such as Scotland’s.

The intense summer heat accelerates the interaction of the spirit with the wood barrels, so a whisky can be produced in four to six years that is potentially comparable to a 12- to 18-year-old Scotch. Moreover, the “angel’s share” is 5–8 per cent, higher than for Scotch, so there is a danger of over-ageing. Kavalan’s expressions are mainly aged for four to seven years. The emphasis is on the flavour profile with the goal of producing smooth flavours, rich in subtropical fruitiness with distinctive floral fragrances.

Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry single malt whisky

Kavalan founder T. T. Lee and his son Y. T. Lee sought out the best of Scottish know-how, bringing in renowned expert Dr Jim Swan who worked closely with Kavalan’s top brass over many years and is credited with developing the DNA of its whisky. He mentored the firm’s former master blender Ian Chang, who was also highly influential in Kavalan’s evolution. Swan pioneered the STR technique for shaving, toasting and recharring wine barrels, which removed the acidity associated with wine cask maturation and enhanced the depth of flavour that could be achieved in Taiwan’s climate. Kavalan’s expressions are all single malts, made from imported European two-row malted barley and two kinds of dry yeast and utilising a double-distillation process. Current maximum capacity is around nine million litres a year.

Kavalan started making waves on Burns Night in 2010, beating a number of big-name Scotch whiskies in a blind tasting in London. Since then, the company has collected scores of prestigious awards, and its Solist Vinho Barrique Single Cask Strength was named the World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards in 2015. Kavalan’s 30 lines are currently exported to around 60 countries and are particularly popular in the United States and Europe.

Kaitlyn Tsai, Kavalan brand ambassador, said of local tastes: “In general Taiwanese prefer their whisky smoother and fruitier, though peated whisky has its own loyal market.”

The STR (shaving, toasting and re-charring) cask preparation process at Kavalan Distillery

TTL has been marketing Jade Supremacy whisky since the 1980s, but it is not distilled in Taiwan. It is imported from Scotland, then blended by TTL to suit Taiwanese tastes.

In 2013, TTL followed King Car’s lead and began production of its own single malt, Omar, from its refurbished distillery in Nantou in central Taiwan. The name is derived from the Gaelic word for amber and, as at Kavalan, TTL turned to Scotland for the technology and expertise to create its product. Facing the same climate realities as Kavalan, Omar also emphasises flavour over age in its whiskies, maturing the spirit in casks for three years. Omar’s website declares that, “every single malt whisky represents the philosophy of tradition, innovation, richness and terroir of Taiwan”.

Smaller “craft” distilleries are also starting to appear, such as the Renaissance Distillery in Kaohsiung, and the Holy Distillery near Taipei, which is producing gin and whisky with the intention “to make a spirit to please God’s palate”.

Just like Kavalan, TTL has sought to build awareness and credibility for the extensive Omar range overseas, garnering numerous international awards along the way. But while they boast popularity abroad, Kavalan and Omar have so far had limited success at home. Government figures show that 82 per cent of total production goes for export, while local consumers continue their love affair with Scotch.
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