Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Distillery Tour #3: Kavalan Distillery (Taiwan) - Makers of the 2015 World's Best Single Malt Whisky

Third in our Distillery Tour series (don't worry we haven't forgotten about Yamazaki - it's due soon) is the Kavalan Distillery in Taiwan. Or should we say, the distillery responsible for the World's Best Single Malt Whisky 2015, as crowned by the World Whiskies Awards in London last week.

Just a few weeks before the Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique Single Cask Strength picked up the coveted title, Steph and I were lucky enough to be treated to a private tour of the distillery (which was very lucky, considering the regular tours are in Mandarin, which neither of us speak).


Located in Yuanshan, a rural township in Yilan County (about 1hr 20m away from Taipei city), the Kavalan Distillery really is a sight to behold. Much like its parent, the King Car group, the distillery is absolutely massive, with everything done on a grand scale - the grounds, the warehouses, even the tasting room.

..but what really fascinated us, before all that, was Yilan County itself. Kilometer upon kilometer upon kilometer of flat, water-filled plots, some with shacks and run-down houses, some with modern mansions. Truly unlike anything we'd ever seen before (the photos below don't do it justice - but believe us when we say the landscape was like this for a good 30-40 minutes before we got to the distillery). Simply amazing.


Unfortunately Ian Chang (Master Distiller, who we met at The Whisky Show 2014 in Sydney) wasn't on site, but nevertheless we were given a very enjoyable tour by an enthusiastic tour guide who showed us the ins and outs of the distillery.


Kavalan obtain their barley already malted from the UK, Sweden and Finland, and don't do any in-house malting (though if they wanted to, they'd certainly have enough room!) Producing 3 million bottles a year, with the average cask aged for 3-4 years, means you need some serious storage facilities. In addition to the incredible 5 story warehouse they currently have, at the time of our visit, the distillery were constructing another. Unsurprising really, given the popularity in recent years. Due to frequent earthquakes in the region, the casks are bound 4 at a time, to reduce the risk of them toppling over - particularly those racked towards the top.

As with many distilleries, casks are a mix of port pipes, sherry butts and bourbon barrels, with the type of cask identifiable by a unique code on the front (and of course, the shape / size). The 3 casks below, first filled in 2006, were the first Kavalan casks to be filled (when you think about it, to win the World's Best Single Malt is a pretty incredible achievement for a distillery that's only been producing for 9 years!


Interestingly, in addition to the regular spirit/wash stills producing the single malt that has made Kavalan famous, the distillery has recently installed a number of other, very different German stills, which are intended to produce gin and brandy. Watch this space.


The tour itself (which I should point out, is completely free) is, in a similar fashion to the Suntory Hakushu Distillery we tourd back in December, somewhat of a "standard" tour. You see the mashing, you see the fermentation, you see the distillation, you see the barrel houses, and then you go into the tasting room. It's enjoyable, and you do get to see a few close-ups (such as some sample grains, open casks, new make spirit / whisky at various stages of aging in different casks), but you're not going to try a single cask whisky straight from the barrel, or taste a new make with your hands. From the looks of it, the distillery simply gets too many visitors each year to offer any specialist tours. It's certainly a popular tourist destination.


Unlike the aforementioned Hakushu Distillery tour, the tasting at the end of the tour is of one whisky only - the Kavalan Classic Single Malt 40% (4yo). There are nosing bottles on each table to allow tasters to nose each Kavalan expression (including the award winning Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique Single Cask Strength), but they aren't for tasting.

What the distillery shop offers, however, is 50mL sample bottles of every expression, along with a limited distillery-only peated 7yo expression (housed in a stunning presentation box, and available for a very reasonable ~$350HKD / $57AUD). If there are two things I really like to see in a distillery shop, it's a distillery-only expression that doesn't cost the earth, and a large range of samples. Tick, tick. Well done, Kavalan.


Was the tour worth doing? Yes, absolutely. While it might not be the most interactive of distillery tours you'll go on, you'll get to see whisky distillation / aging on a simply massive scale, in a country that just a few short years ago no-one would have thought could produce a decent whisky, let alone a world-beater.

A few tips if you do plan to visit:
  • As mentioned, the distillery is a decent drive from Taipei (it took us about 1h 20m in a taxi), and if you're not driving yourself, your options are pretty limited. Our hotel (the excellent W Taipei) arranged a taxi for us, who waited at the distillery and drove us back. If you're not driving, I'd suggest doing something similar.
  • If you are driving though, there's plenty of parking (of course it goes without saying - don't drink and drive, but this isn't like some Scottish distilleries where you'll be tasting 4-5 whiskies at the end).
  • Book ahead, and if you don't speak Mandarin, see if you can arrange an English tour.



With Ian Chang (Kavalan Master Distiller) the day after his 
"Best Single Malt 2015" win, in London.


Cheers,
Steph & Martin.

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