Interview

The lesser-spotted Whisky Kingfisher

Delving into the world of Taiwanese whisky with Master of the Quaich, Ho-cheng Yao
By Gavin D. Smith
Ho-cheng Yao
Ho-cheng Yao
Taiwan is a fascinating and extremely lucrative market for Scotch whisky, even spawning exclusive bottlings such as The Glenlivet 13 Years Old, matured in oloroso sherry casks, and The Macallan Boutique Collection 2017 Release, not to mention Wolfburn Single Cask 835 – Shin Group Limited Release.

With a population of just 23.78 million people, the country is the fourth-largest global export destination for Scotch in terms of value, though only 20th in volume, implying that the Taiwanese whisky consumer is prepared to pay for quality.

According to the Scotch Whisky Association, total Scotch exports to Taiwan have risen by 17 per cent in value since 2011, from £155m to £181m in 2020, and single malt exports have grown by a remarkable 42 per cent in value, from £84m to £120m over the same period.

One of the most knowledgeable whisky figures in Taiwan is Ho-cheng Yao, aka ‘Kingfisher’, appointed a Keeper of the Quaich in 2006, elevated to the status of Master of the Quaich in 2018, and the ideal person to put some flesh on the bones of Taiwan’s whisky adventures. By day, Yao heads up the long-established family animal nutrition business, having gained a degree in mechanical engineering early in his career, but whisky is his great passion. His nickname – and email address – of Kingfisher came about due to a college hobby of birdwatching, and, as he explains, “Later on it became my nickname in whisky-related events. In the beginning, I didn’t want my business friends knowing whisky was my hobby.”

Yao’s fascination with whisky was sparked back in 1995 by the gift of a bottle of The Balvenie Founder’s Reserve. As he recalls, “I found it really interesting and began to understand about single malt. Later on, because of my graduate study for an MBA in the USA, I got the chance to start tasting various single malt whiskies.

“I began exploring single malt using Michael Jackson’s Single Malt Whisky Companion – 3rd Edition, trying to find different single malts in the book and writing my notes and score alongside Michael Jackson’s score. It was quite fun. I drink all kinds of whisky, but I particularly like very peated ones or non-peated, heavy sherry-style malts. My favourite would be Ardbeg distilled in the 1970s.”
Ho-cheng Yao at his induction as a Master of the Quaich

Yao was soon keen to share his whisky interest and, after getting together with fellow enthusiasts in Taiwan during 2002, he established the country’s first single malt whisky tasting club two years later. He says, “About the same time, I was invited to join Malt Maniacs as a certified member. I also started writing articles for various local magazines and leading tasting events for the public and gradually become a KOL [key opinion leader] in the industry.

“I was among the judges of Malt Maniacs awards from 2005 to 2015, and ‘retired’ in 2015 because I started my own whisky business. I am now the Taiwanese importer for Berry Bros. & Rudd, A. Dewar Rattray, High Coast Distillery [in Sweden], Dad’s Hat Rye Whiskey and Fuller’s beer.”

The popularity of whisky with Taiwanese consumers can be traced back to the years after government control of all alcohol-related businesses ended in 1990. Yao explains that the government slowly opened the market to private operators, before which the spirits sector was dominated by Chinese white liquor, in particular a brand called Kinmen Kaoliang. “That is still probably the best-selling spirit here,” he notes.

Brown spirits had the status of luxury goods before the government monopoly of alcohol ended. During the early 1990s, when the import market was newly open, Cognac dominated the local imported spirits sector. Yao says, “I was told by various sources that almost all the XO in the world was consumed in Taiwan during those years.
The Kavalan Whisky Bar

“Whisky started taking over the Cognac market around 1995, partly because of a price and tax difference and partly because many businessmen believed Cognac was too sweet and not good for health – a very strange rumour back at that time!”

Scotch whisky companies were quick to see the potential of Taiwan, and The Macallan became a favourite dram; Yao remembers its advertising campaign using Michael Jackson’s description of Macallan as “the Rolls-Royce of whiskies”.

“As Macallan actually goes very well with Chinese food, it soon became the premium spirit brand,” says Yao, “and people started to learn about single malt. Back in those days, there were only Sherry Oak expressions. Macallan had the number one single malt position from the early 2000s and actually in some years it was not only the leading brand in the single malt sector, but also the leading brand if compared with blended whisky.”
Yao was appointed a Master of the Quaich in 2018

He notes that while Scotch companies put lots of effort into promoting their product in Taiwan, that effort was not matched by the distillers of bourbon or Irish whiskey. “On the other hand,” he says, “Japanese whisky dominated the market for some years in the 1990s. It was mainly Suntory Old and Kakubin, and it was overtaken by a local Scotch brand called Matisse. Later on, the big names like Chivas and Johnnie Walker came to lead the market.

“Scotch dominates the spirits sector, and single malt whisky represent almost half of the whisky consumption. Right now, the number one-selling single malt is Singleton (normally Glen Ord), and the number one-selling blend is Johnnie Walker Black Label. I think Singleton sales are much higher. It’s particularly interesting that low-priced Scotch is dominated by Scottish Leader, which seems not to be selling really well in other countries. Collectors now are quite crazy for Japanese whisky and Macallan, while Brora has become another popular target recently.”

Yao declares that from a stylistic point of view, “Sherry is still the king, though Macallan is not the market leader anymore. Almost every brand has something sherry-related to lead sales, not 100 per cent sherry cask-matured, but it needs to be able to state it’s a sherry version.”
Inside the Kavalan Whisky Bar, just one of the many whisky-focussed establishments located in Taiwan

When it comes to the profile of Taiwanese whisky drinkers, Yao declares, “Almost every male in different age groups drinks whisky, and recently we have started to see more female whisky drinkers. The main age group used to be over 40s, but now we also see more and more young people start drinking whisky.”

In terms of drinking habits, Yao states, “Most people tend to drink whisky with ice and pair it with a meal. But quite a few still love to taste it straight. Highballs and Mizuwari are not that popular in Taiwan, and certainly not whisky with green tea or coke.”

Early in Taiwan’s whisky journey the main reliance was on physical retailers, and their stock influenced what the public bought, but as Yao explains, “Later on specialists like myself (using social media) changed the market and led the sales to more expensive whiskies – single cask and special expressions.”

He continues, “Taiwan’s whisky consumption is not really that high, but considering average selling prices per bottle, we are probably among the top countries. About 10 years ago, not every brand had its own ambassador, but now almost every whisky company has at least one ambassador in the country, and some have more than three.

“These ambassadors lead various events, and they normally need to hold more than 200 tastings annually. One told me his record is 300. Diageo even got their own tasting room to hold tastings for different brands. Whisky festivals are quite common now, and while once they were very important places to get information, now we actually have too many and they are held too frequently. People go there to see old friends, not really to explore new ideas or new whiskies.”

In recent years, Taiwan has become not just a whisky consumer but also a serious whisky producer, with Kavalan Distillery coming on stream in 2006, before expansion led to its status as one of the world’s 10 largest malt whisky distilleries. Exports are made to more than 60 countries, and in May 2019, Kavalan opened a ‘Cask Strength Whisky Bar’ in the capital city of Taipei, which recreates the inside of one of the distillery’s warehouses and offers whisky straight from the cask.

Less well known is Omar single malt, which was first produced in 2008 by the state-owned Nantou distillery. Its range of expressions has grown significantly in recent years and now includes a line-up of rather exotic ‘liqueur cask finishes’ such as Lychee Liqueur Barrel Finish, Black Queen Wine Barrel Finish and Orange Brandy Barrel Finish.

As for Taiwan’s whisky-making future, Yao says, “The success of the two distilleries pushes some of the plans for new distilleries, which we’ve heard about several times, but whisky making requires lots of investment, and many projects didn’t go ahead, but we hope they will happen soon.”