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Taiwan whisky comes out tops

Taiwan's only whisky distillery, Kavalan, produces drinks that have won medals at the Oscars of the spirit world. -ST
Rebecca Lynne Tan

Mon, Jun 24, 2013
The Straits Times

Over the years, the Taiwanese have not only proven to be one of the world's top consumers of whisky, but also a fine producer of the spirit.

Kavalan, Taiwan's only whisky distillery, has been making waves across the globe, following in the footsteps of its neighbouring Japanese whisky distilleries Yamazaki and Nikka.

Last year, the Taiwanese company was named Asia Pacific Spirits Producer of the Year at the International Wine & Spirits Challenge, a prestigious international competition based in the Britain. It is touted as the Oscars of the spirit industry and Kavalan's whiskies have also won several medals at this competition.

The distillery was set up and built in 2005 by privately held Taiwanese conglomerate King Car, and is located in Yilan at the foothills of the Snowy Mountain range, about an hour from Taipei.

It released its first whisky, the Kavalan Classic Single Malt Whisky, in December 2008 and now has 10 different expressions.

They include ones aged in ex-Bourbon barrels from the United States and port casks from Portugal, to ones blended with whiskies from different casks to increase complexity.

The Taiwanese whiskies were launched here earlier this month and are being distributed by La Maison Du Whisky.

Kavalan's master blender Ian Chang, 38, who was in Singapore recently to promote the brand, says: "A clean and natural environment is the backbone of a whisky."

He says that the air at Yilan is clean and unpolluted and the area's close proximity to the mountain range provides the distillery with easy access to the naturally filtered spring water. Incidentally, this is the same water which Kavalan's parent company King Car bottles for consumers.

The distillery imports its malt from Northern Europe, Scotland and the Scandinavian countries.

While the whisky brand has been enjoying international success of late, business at the beginning, Mr Chang says, was far from brisk. He has been with the distillery since it opened.

The Taiwanese' preference for age statements on whisky labels - an indication of how many years the whisky has been aged - also did not help at the start, because that is not printed on any of Kavalan's whiskies.

To many consumers, whiskies of 10 years or older are regarded as superior.

Mr Chang says: "Initially, no one wanted to buy our whisky at all. But people need to understand that age does not necessarily translate to quality."

The rate at which a whisky matures is dependent on conditions such as climate and temperature, and that can differ from country to country.

For example, he says that in Taiwan, whisky that has matured for a year is equivalent to five years in a colder climate.

The Kavalan Classic, made with six types of single-malt whisky from various barrels and casks, has an age of about 41/2 years. This means that each of the whiskies it is made with has been matured for 41/2 years on average.

Mr Chang says: "Quality is what we really try to emphasise instead."

And that emphasis seems to be working. The Taiwan domestic market now forms 60 per cent of sales, though he adds that building confidence in the brand domestically also took some time.

He says: "Taiwanese consumers do not have much confidence in domestic brands. That is why it is important and crucial for us to do well in Europe because that is the best advertisement for consumers in Asia."

Business in Europe, especially in France, has been growing considerably over the past couple of years and now makes up about 25 per cent of its sales. The remaining 15 per cent goes to China.

Mr Chang honed his craft alongside mentor and consultant whisky blender Jim Swan, who has worked with many distilleries including Glenglassaugh and Penderyn.

Each day, Mr Chang noses 150 whisky samples in the morning and another 150 in the afternoon.

The food science graduate from Reading University in Britain says his background in organic chemistry has equipped him with the knowledge about the science behind "aroma evaluation" because whisky, he says, "is all about aromas and flavours".

He landed the job after responding to an advertisement in the newspaper and passing several rounds of interviews, one of which included a nose test.

He was given 10 samples of various essences, and allowed to sniff each of them only once, after which he had to describe the notes and scents.

He says: "Many consumers think a blender has very good tastebuds, but the truth is a person can really differentiate between only four tastes - sweet, salty, sour and bitter.

"The human olfactory system, however, can differentiate and nose between 300 and 400 notes."

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