Before heading into the distillery proper this morning, we gathered in a UN-style conference room to watch a short film about the King Car Company. No precursor could have been more appropriate to start the Kavalan experience. Many of us were giggling throughout the introduction; not because we were mocking the video, but because of how completely unpretentious the presentation was. There was not one trace of irony in any of the explanations concerning King Car's advances in pesticides, or the increase in food safety measures. Every aspect of King Car was detailed and given with complete admiration, even though much of the information was completely out of touch with what's currently trendy in the American spirits market. There was no talk about "handcrafting" or "small batch" production, and no mention of "hands-on" care. The automatized aspects of Kavalan Distillery were points of pride, not humor. Efficiency is key in Taiwan, just as it is in Scotland, but there's no attempt to romanticize the process. Quality is in the details, as it should be. After four years of complete rusticity, I found this utterly refreshing. The film made me so happy, that when we finally met with Ian in front of the entrance, I shook his hand and said, "Great video, man. Absolutely great." He was all smiles, as usual.
That's not to say that Kavalan is a distillery run completely by computers and robots, because it isn't. There are twenty guys there just working with cooperage, which is more than some distilleries in Scotland employ for an entire week's shift. The Taiwanese are proud of their technological advances and don't feel the need to remain rustic just because that's what's cool right now. In fact, I don't think they even realize that's what's cool right now. Do you know how wonderful it is to visit a producer completely lacking in pretense? It's incredible. That's Kavalan in a nutshell: completely honest and straightforward without any hipster chip on its shoulder.
In a lot of ways, Kavalan reminds me of a combination of Caol Ila and Port Ellen; the way the distillery looks and feels. It's modern and mechanical like Caol Ila and the placement of floor-to-ceiling windows opposite the pot stills is very reminiscent of the way the Islay giant faces Jura in the distance. We were able to taste the new-make whisky off the still and I was taken aback by how fruit-forward it was. Since 2005, Kavalan has employed a long 60 hour ferment (much like Oban), helping to bring out the fruity elements of the whisky.
The pagodas are very Port Ellen-esque. Except instead of a cold Islay port next to it there are tropical mountains.
I'll probably end up doubling-back and getting more technical about the distillation process, but to me the most important aspect of Kavalan's flavor is the cooperage and the warehouse conditions at the site. They use a five floor warehouse to create different temperatures, resulting in various speeds of maturation. It's part of the reason they've had so much success with their fino sherry expression; a type of cask that Bowmore distillery gave up on after thirty years of lackluster results. Scotland simply doesn't get warm enough to release that delicate fino flavor upon the whisky aging inside the barrel. The intense and humid heat of Taiwan, on the other hand, seems to bring out the best in certain sherry butts.
That's part of the reason the fifth floor of the warehouse (where the temperature often reaches 108 degrees) is called "the church." Partly because the vaulted ceiling resembles a cathedral and partly because miracles seem to happen inside the sherry butts resting in this room. We were able to taste fino sherry-aged whisky straight from the cask. It was indeed heavenly.
King Car's convention center brings more than one million vistors per year, making Kavalan distillery a heavily-trafficked tourist attraction. They have a gigantic tasting area with every expression available for a very small fee. With the neon lights and vibrant colors, it resembles nothing like an old-school distillery or a low-lit Scottish pub.
What's happening at Kavalan is distinctly Taiwanese, from the incredibly pure water being sourced from the nearby Snow Mountains, to the manner in which the distillery is presented and operated. It's not simply Scottish single malt being made in Asia. There's something deeper going on.
I'm going to dwell on this idea a bit more.