Distillery Focus

The Jewel of Taiwan

Charles MacLean finds out more about the island's first distillery
By Charles MacLean
Around Burns Night, I was called by The Times’ Scottish editor. “I need a piece about the new English malt, St. George’s, and how it compares with Scotch malt. Can you organise a comparative tasting?”

“Fine,” I said. “Two conditions: the tasting must be strictly blind, and the other whiskies must be no older than St. George’s.”

Soon after this, I was called by a Times journalist, asking me to go to The Vintners’ Room in Leith, where he had arranged the tasting. As I was leaving, I remembered that, exactly a year before, I had been given a sample of a new two Years Old Taiwanese whisky by Lenny Russell of Ian Macleod Distillers. I put it in my pocket.

The panel included Geraldine Coates, Zoubair Mohammed (of Raeburn Fine Wines) and Paul Laverty (Ken Loach’s script writer). I asked Silvio Praino, manager of The Vintners Rooms, to pour the six samples in an adjacent room and present them to us in pairs, and asked the panel to describe the aromas and tastes they detected and then give each sample a mark out of ten. At the end, the whiskies were revealed, and the scores counted.

You may have read the article in The Times, or in any number of worldwide newspapers – it was clearly a quiet time for news! –summed up on the front page of Le Figaro,(27th January): “Le whisky Ecossais a trouvé son maître… à Taiwan”.

To our surprise, the order was as follows: 1) Kavalan 2 Years Old Taiwanese malt (27.5 points), 2) 3 Years Old Scotch blend (22 points), 3) 3 Years Old Scotch blend (20 points), 4) St. George’s, English single malt (15.5 points), 5) 3 Years Old Scotch malt (8.5 points), 6) 5 Years Old Scotch malt (4.5 points).

Back in the east

I have just returned from Taiwan, where I was presenting a talk about ‘Flavour’, and was shown round Kavalan Distillery by Ian Chang, the charming, witty and knowledgeable director of production and master blender. Ian, who holds a degree in Food Technology from the University of Reading, admits that it has been a steep learning curve since 2005, when the distillery was first mooted, and acknowledges the contribution of Dr. Jim Swan, the world’s leading independent consultant on whisky production and maturation.

First, the location and name.

Kavalan Distillery is situated on the Yi-Lan Plain, in the north-east of the island of Taiwan. You reach it via a long and twisting coastal road from Taipei, the capital, or, more directly, via the fifth longest tunnel in the world, burrowing through the Central Mountain Range, which is the steep and heavily afforested spine of the island.

The city of Yi-Lan spreads in comfortable disorder between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains; the distillery is in a crook of the hills, where the Central Range meets the Snowy Mountains – romantically named, since there ain’t no snow in Taiwan: temperatures range from 37˚ – 40˚C in summer to 6˚ – 8˚C in winter (15˚C warmer than Speyside).

The Kavalan people (‘the people of the plain’) were one of Taiwan’s aboriginal groups. They are of Polynesian descent, arrived by sea from the east and decided to settle when they saw the beauty and fertility of the place, driving the local residents – the Atayal people – into the mountains. A bit like the Anglo Saxons did to the Ancient Britons, although about 4000 years earlier.

The founder of the distillery, Mr. T.T. Lee, is proud of his and Taiwan’s heritage, proud to be the first distillery on the island, and to name it after the ‘people of the plain’.

He founded his company – with the unlikely name (to Western ears) of King Car – in the 1950s, to make insecticides. Soon it diversified into soft drinks, instant coffee (its Mr. Brown brand is massive in many markets, notably Germany, Czech Republic, Cyprus and North America), powdered soups, biotechnology and health-care. In 1996 he built a bottled water plant on the Yi-Lan Plain, to exploit the exceptionally pure and soft water from the nearby mountains.

Ten years later, he decided to add a whisky distillery to the site, and to build a vast visitor centre. The latter, which houses a 600 seat restaurant, a shop as big as a small supermarket, conference facilities and a film theatre, currently averages 24,000 visitors a week – 2,000 a day (Mondays to Fridays), with 7,000 a day on Saturdays and Sundays; well over a million visitors a year – more than all the Scottish distilleries put together!

The details of the production facility at Kavalan are in the side-bar. Unusually, there are two distinct distilleries under the same roof: Line A, which follows the pattern of a traditional Scottish malt distillery, and Line B, which is equipped with adjustable Holstein stills, and which can therefore make different styles of whisky if required.

The intense heat and humidity of the site greatly speeds up maturation and greatly increases evaporation – around 15 per cent by volume per annum, as opposed to 2 per cent in Scotland. Under such circumstances, the whisky could - indeed should - be bottled at two to three years old. The wise Dr. Swan realized that a corollary of this was that, for optimum flavour, the spirit should be very low in feints. Accordingly, the saved fraction of the spirit run is a mere 10 per cent of the complete run, cutting before the feints start and giving an intermediate spirit receiver strength of 75%Vol, rather than the usual 68%-70%Vol. The resulting spirit is light and estery in style; clean and fragrant.

For the standard bottling, Kavalan Classic, Ian Chang and Jim Swan choose an unusual mix of casks – refill and first-fill ex-Bourbon, ex-Sherry butts and hogsheads, a smidgen of Spanish ex-red wine barriques and Portuguese ex-white wine barrels.

The result is sensational (see my tasting note, attached) and should do very well in China, the company’s key target export market, coming at a time when trade relations between the two countries are beginning to thaw. One thing I am sure of, however, is that the pride and patriotism that has gone into Taiwan’s first whisky distillery will resist the ambitions of her mighty neighbour to make Taiwan part of China.

Raw materials

Soft water from the mountains behind the site, via bore-holes (PH 7-8; 8-18 calcium content). This water is also bottled by the company for drinking. Unpeated malt mainly from U.K. Dried yeast, added to own strain of distiller’s wet yeast for complexity.

Line A – capacity 1.3m LPA per annum (3million 70cl bottles @ 40%)

Mashing: 4 tonnes per mash in a semi-Lauter tun.
Fermentation: 60 hours in 8 stainless steel fermenters.
Distillation: 2 pairs lamp-glass shaped stills: wash stills of 12,000ltrs (charged 11,000 ltrs); spirit stills of 7,000 ltrs (charged 6,000ltrs), all made by Forsyth of Rothes. Shell and tube condensers with very cold after-coolers.
Maturation: 35,000 casks in warehouse currently; plans to build more warehouses on site. Mainly 1st fill US ex-Bourbon barrels, plus a small number of ex-sherry butts and hogs, and some ex-port barriques.

Line B – capacity 2.6m LPA per annum (6 million 70cl bottles @ 40% Vol)

Mashing: 8 tonne full-Lauter tun.
Fermentation: 60 hours in 12 stainless steel washbacks, with double the capacity of line A
Distillation: 4 pairs Hostein stills, 2 pairs with extra plates; charged at 21,000 ltrs. By altering the numbers of plates, can make two distinct styles of spirit. Currently they are not doing this.
Bottlings: Line B began operating in August 2008; some will be released as single malt (with a very light character) in August 2010.

Tasting note

Currently, the distillery offers four expressions, all at around 3 Years Old:


Classic @ 40% Vol


Concertmaster (port-wood finish) @ 40% Vol


ex-Bourbon @ 58.8% Vol


ex-Sherry @ 58% Vol

A single ex-Fino cask @ 58.5% Vol was bottled to celebrate Chinese New Year 2010 and sold out in 3 days.


Rich amber in colour, the nose is light and fruity, led by tropical fruits (mango, papaya) and ripe peaches. More perfumed than Scotch, but would pass for same in a blind tasting. A little water immediately raises estery notes – vinyl and pear drops. Would now be taken for a Speyside. A return to fruitiness after a moment, with a suggestion of warm wood. Light bodied, to taste. Sweet, with fresh acidity, drying in the medium-length finish. With water a trace of fennel, and peach-cream chocolate in the aftertaste.

Comments: No trace of immaturity, and not overpowered by wood-derived flavours. Enjoyable and very easy to drink. Peach notes to the fore.