Waves of applause and echoing cheers greet me as I slide into my taxi. Perhaps I am being mistaken for someone else? I am neither rich nor famous. This must be the radio. Then I notice that my driver's eyes are riveted to Yani Tseng playing golf on a dash-mounted television. Disconcertingly, his gaze only rarely strays to the road as we race, I hope, in the direction of the hotel. Somehow I make it to my destination, heart pounding but unscathed. After quickly freshening up I'm in another car heading out in search of whisky. What should I see in this taxi-cab? It's a windshield-mounted video camera faithfully recording every movement on the road in case the driver needs it as evidence when he has his next inevitable fender bender. Welcome to Taipei!
One of whisky's biggest stories these days is skyrocketing demand in Asia. Western whisky lovers may wring their hands as they watch prices rise and formerly abundant brands rationed and re-formulated in a losing race to keep up with burgeoning Asian sales. Get ready whisky lovers: you ain't seen nothin' yet. The Asian culture of talking business over whisky is evolving into the savouring culture of the connoisseur. The result? Demand for top quality whiskies will only continue to expand.
I tour the whisky stores in Taipei to discover huge and favourably priced selections of rare and exclusive Scotch and Japanese single malts, all prominently displayed among legions of well-known brands and blends. Canadian whiskies are a rarity though, and I find only four: Black Velvet, McAdams, Canadian Club 12 Years Old, and the long discontinued Canadian Club 15 Years Old. I am even more discouraged by my tour of whisky bars. Dazzling though their collections might be, among the selections in half a dozen top bars, only Canadian Club Classic and Crown Royal represent my homeland. This is going to change if Jackie Lin and Thomas Chen have their way. Chen runs the whisky division of Lin's Canada-based Fountana Group, a company with diverse operations ranging from high-rise construction to high-end seafood and wines. Now they are introducing high-quality Canadian whisky to Taiwan. Chen, who is well known to Vancouver area whisky lovers, began contacting Canadian distilleries several years ago. He was searching for barrels of Canadian whisky that would appeal to the finely tuned palates of Taipei's top whisky connoisseurs. As wealthy Taiwanese businessmen adopt the finest whisky as their tipple of choice, a growing culture of educated connoisseurship has developed, honed by the best whisky money can buy.
One private collector, for example, sets a bottle of Janet Sheed Roberts 55 Years Old Glenfiddich on his shelf without place of honour. Recently in Toronto, guards with side arms watched over this whisky when it was displayed at Whisky Live. In this collection though, it's just another bottle sitting near an even rarer Yamazaki 50 Years Old, and more than 1,000 SMWS single-cask bottlings. "Whisky is for drinking," he tells me as he long-pours me a 31 Years Old Karuizawa. To serve this crowd, Chen needs very special whisky indeed.
His search brought him to High River, Alberta, where barrels of long-aged whisky sit undisturbed in a dingy warehouse at Highwood Distillery. The rarely opened warehouse doors gushed such whisky-rich vapours that he had to wait for the building to air out before venturing inside. Chen settled on a single batch of 10-year-old barrels and another that had spent 21 years among these seemingly forgotten treasures. Then, just for good measure he bought an entire batch of barrels containing whisky distilled some 32 years earlier. "For future release," he tells me.
Lin and Chen launched their Canadian Rockies whisky in Taipei on October 25, 2012 to enthusiastic reception from connoisseurs and drinks media alike, and at least a couple of dozen beaming relatives. "Elegant," proclaimed legendary barkeep and owner, Steven Lin (no relation), his eyes opening wide at his first taste of Canadian Rockies 10. "Slowly matured into a yin and yang that reconciles Bourbon, oak, vanilla, and toffee," he enthused. The complexity, depth of flavour, and long peppery finish won strong approval from Lin, whose Back Yard bar is a favourite haunt of Taipei's whisky cognoscenti. Lin knows good whisky and is considered one of the most influential whisky connoisseurs in Taipei.
He's not alone. Renowned and much awarded bartender, Angus Zou was equally enthusiastic. "Delicate," he exclaimed at his first taste of Canadian Rockies 21. "I must be getting old," Lin retorted, chuckling, "I like the 21 Years Old even better."
Chen is launching his whisky this year with only 500 cases, so he has to be sure he gets them to the right customers. "We are thinking 15 years down the road and want to establish Canadian Rockies first with leading-edge connoisseurs and taste makers." Five hundred cases may not go far in a city of nearly seven million people, so more whisky is in the works. As demand grows Fountana has plans to release a 33 Years Old version to tantalise the palates of connoisseurs even further.
It's likely that the standard Canadian bar whisky of yesteryear will soon be just a memory in Taiwan, as new brands raise the profile of Canadian whisky and the expectations of whisky lovers as well.
At the same time, Taiwan is also making waves in the world of whisky with a locally distilled product. Any whisky tour of Taiwan must include the 90-minute drive through a series of long, mountain-piercing tunnels to the massive Kavalan Distillery in Yuan Shan District.Don't expect to be greeted by the smell of fermenting barley though. Cask samples, wonderful though they would be, are never offered. Company policy to carefully manage their message keeps mash tuns, stills, and maturing whisky sealed, museum-like, behind glass. Although Fountana Group distributes Kavalan in Western Canada, even they may not venture onto the floor.
The hot, humid climate of Taiwan makes for rapid ageing and Kavalan is quickly building a reputation for high-quality single malt whisky. Malted barley imported from Scotland and Finland becomes pot-distilled spirit that is then matured in American oak barrels which are coopered (or re-coopered) on site.
Since its founding in 2005, seven expressions of Kavalan have been released, providing a broad range of flavours, each with an Asian fruitiness. My favourites include the Soloist Sherry Cask version and the newly released cask-strength Fino Cask Limited Edition. Local whisky connoisseurs have also been treated to several cask strength single-cask releases. Although Kavalan whisky is made from unpeated barley, a batch matured in barrels brought in from Laphroaig is huge with smoke and delightful.
Kavalan has made good use of its parent company's molecular biology labs. Scientists at King Car have developed specific strains of yeast that lend flavours of certain Asian fruits to the whisky. Such tailoring of Kavalan flavours begins with fermentation.
Yes, Kavalan's are big, expressive whiskies, but as with many things Asian, it's their finesse, elegance, and subtlety that are most highly prized. Yet, while Taipei's whisky connoisseurs speak highly of Kavalan, they express dismay at prices that lean toward the high end. How odd in a whisky culture where price seems to be no object when it comes to Scottish and Japanese malts! Be that as it may, the whisky does a wonderful dance, seven dances actually, on your tongue and in your nose.Who's to say if Fountana's efforts to bring top-shelf Canadian whisky to Taiwan will pay off? Initial reactions to Canadian Rockies would indicate yes, and Highwood Distillers has clearly pulled out all the stops to give Fountana the best possible chance. As Highwood's Michael Nychyk tells me: "We look forward to a long working relationship with the Fountana group."
Still, commercial success is not their only motivation. Thomas Chen explains that whisky "is just a tiny part of our business." And suddenly it becomes clear that what really drives these Taiwanese Canadians to this venture is a combination that includes pride in Canada with the quest for financial gain. The result is a sharing of the whisky riches of each country with the other.Connoisseurs on both sides of the Pacific can only nod in approval.
21 Years Old 40% ABV
Robust, yet elegant and fine. Red cedar, crispy clean oak, lilacs, ﬂoral sweet-and-sour passion fruit, kumquats, and spicy-hot pepper in rich vanilla butterscotch. Takes its time in revealing all its complexities, then finishes slowly in cleansing citrus pith.
10 Years Old 40% ABV
Full and rich with gingery rye spices, citrus peel, crispy oak, and creamy butterscotch tinged with maple syrup. Dried black fruit and white grapefruit fade into sweet toffee.