Detailed Kavalan Preview

With my stuffy nose finally drained, and a much better environment for detailed tasting available to me (our tasting bar), Kyle, Angie (our own Taiwanese-born K&Ler), and I met up with Ian Chang and Wan-Lun Wu from Kavalan in the Redwood City store for some serious sampling. We had Ian all to ourselves for more than a half-hour of questions, discussion, and dealing. Let me start by saying this -- we all left the appointment very impressed. The whiskies from Kavalan are of a very high quality, especially for whiskies between the four and seven year maturity range. What we're facing, however, is another Kilchoman situation -- one that presents consumers with low age statements combined with high price tags, forcing them to decide for themselves if the whisky is worth the extra cash.

Thankfully, much like with Kilchoman, the whiskies are fantastic, so that helps make the decision a bit easier. They're so good that, even though they're quite pricey, you can't help but want to throw down your money right then and there after tasting (don't worry, we'll get them into the tasting bar for a public event so that you can decide for yourself). But I'll tell you this right off -- I am ALL IN on the Kavalan whiskies. I'm throwing all my chips into the stack and betting on them to win big. Let me take you through a detailed account of each whisky to tell you why.

Kavalan Classic Single Malt Whisky (expected retail circa $90) The first release from Kavalan back in 2008 was their classic expression that uses ex-sherry, ex-Bourbon, and ex-wine casks of between four and four and a half years of age for the marriage. The American release will be bumped up from 40% to 46% ABV as well. The first thing that strikes you as you taste it is how un-youthful it is. It might as well be a 12 year from the Highlands, but with an incredible supple-fruited character. It tastes like well-made, mature, Scottish single malt with extra concentration. It's new and exciting, yet familiar and easy-to-place.

At the moment, Kavalan is producing about 1.5 million liters of spirit a year and they've got about 65K barrels laying down in their warehouses. However, they plan on expanding to 4.5 million liters within the next two years to keep up with global demand. I think there's going to be big demand, too. 

Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask Finish (expected retail circa $95) The Concertmaster is aged in ex-Bourbon casks for the first three years of its maturation, before being transfered to Ruby Port pipes for an additional year of finishing. The integration is flawless and perfectly balanced -- there's enough malty texture from the Bourbon maturation with just enough red-fruited sweetness to round out the edges. It never tastes gimmicky or overdone. It's somewhere in between the Glenmorangie Quinta Rubin and the Balvenie 21 year. The Concertmaster is less decadent than the Balvenie, but has more chocolate and cocoa flavors than the GlenMo. Lovely.

Kavalan imports their barley from England, Scotland, and Sweden, but the water is all from Taiwan. They also have their own cooperage on sight with six employees who have all travelled to Scotland, Kentucky, and Spain to learn the techniques of each particular region.

King Car Conductor (expected retail price circa $110) Much like Suntory owns Yamazaki and Hakushu, Kavalan is owned by the King Car Group, which wanted a namesake whisky that would represent the company's involvment with the distillery. The formula is similar to the classic expression, but uses about twice the amount of sherry. The result is a whisky that reminds me quite a bit of something in-between the Yamazaki 18 and the Glendronach 12. It's chewy, but not sweet. There's barrel spice, but also richness. It's going to be a big hit.

Kavalan Ex-Bourbon Cask Strength (expected retail circa $160) The American TTB has rejected the word "Solist" for the Kavalan expressions (no one knows exactly why), so the U.S. bottles will not feature the name. The whiskies, however, will remain the same. Kavalan uses ex-Bourbon casks from Beam, Buffalo Trace, and Heaven Hill to mature their full proof Bourbon expression. The flavors are much lighter with tropical hints of coconut and mango. The high proof keeps those flavors from dominating, however. Great stuff.

Kavalan Fino Sherry Cask Strength (expected retail circa $360) I know what you're thinking: "$360 for seven year old whisky??!!" It's expensive, there's no doubt. But there's also no doubt that this is the best whisky in the Kavalan portfolio -- hands down, no bones about it. It's not like it's the most expensive because of the proof or the age. It's actually the most expensive because it's the best -- and also because getting fino sherry butts isn't an easy task these days. The palate is incredibily round and supple, even at 57.8% alcohol. The richness turns into sweet honey, decadent caramel, and soft butterscotch. It's a total delight. It's like nectar of the gods. Incredbile.

Kavalan Vinho Barrique Cask Strength (expected retail circa $160) Kavalan uses a process, not unlike Lagavulin for their Vinho Barrique expression, called STR: shave, toast, and re-char. In the case of Kavalan, they take old wine casks from Portugal and reseason them to create a dark, heavily-oaked, intense flavor of whisky. It couldn't be further from all the quarter-cask, super-oaked craft stuff we see here in the U.S. This is like a more concentrated version of Macallan Fine Oak that has way more intensity. It's actually quite spectacular, especially with the extra proof to balance the spice.

Kavalan Oloroso Sherry Cask Strength (expected retail circa $180) If you're a fan of the heavily-sherried Karuizawa whiskies, then this whisky is going to light your fire. It's a total sherry bomb, dark and dense, and loaded with big, heavy Oloroso flavor. It's totally concentrated as well, despite only seven years in the butt. That's that Taiwanese heat, I guess. I don't know how else to explain it. It's not youthful or hot or out of whack. It's the real deal -- lots of cakey baking spices, dark fudge, and rich decadent sherry action. All of Kavalan's casks are filled at 59%, so despite losing 10% to the angel's share each year, the whisky still maintains its proof quite well -- neither increasing nor decreasing, really.

So there you have it! I'm sure much of the enthusiasm has drained from your initial curiosity now that you see what these bottles are going to sell for, but we'll make sure to organize a few public events so that you can form your own conclusions about whether or not to purchase. I can tell you this with complete honesty -- I will be buying a few of these for myself.

We're still a few weeks away from delivery, but we'll be back before then for an interview with Ian Chang and some more photos of the production process.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll