“The light music of whiskey falling into a glass — an agreeable interlude.”
– James Joyce
It was my first assignment as a freelance reporter in Taiwan — I pitched a travel article about touring the Kavalan Whisky distillery in Yilan. This brand had won awards and was becoming better known outside of Taiwan.
I had only tasted the whisky once because it was expensive compared to the imported scotch in Taiwan — I could buy a bottle of Glenlivet for about $20-25, but the cheaper Classic Single Malt blend of Kavalan was about $40 (it sells for almost $70 in New Jersey).
The last time I took a whiskey tour was in Edinburgh when I was 21 and spent a cold December afternoon in the Whiskey Heritage Centre. That’s where I found my bottle of Scapa 12 year old, which is no longer produced. I figured a tour of a distillery in Taiwan would be a different and educational experience. Plus, it was a day out of Taipei.
The first thing I had to do was figure out how to get to the Yilan and the distillery. The town is not far from Taipei, but the train takes a roundabout route while the bus is more direct. The bus stop, however, is in the middle of nowhere (ok, not quite, but it feels like it). I was dropped off between a huge parking lot and a few nondescript buildings and no sense of which way was which — GPS on my phone was slightly inaccurate and had me facing the wrong direction as I stepped off the bus.
I walked toward the train station to find the bus that would take me to the distillery, though I found there wasn’t a direct route from the bus stop and I had to walk a bit farther in the heat with my gear. The tourist information center was a relief to find — air conditioning and a refill of my water bottle. That’s when I was told the next bus wasn’t for another hour and a half, if it arrived on time. I opted for a taxi.
A private tour had been arranged for my visit to Kavalan. The distillery offers free tours, but English tours need to be reserved. My Chinese is not good enough to understand a tour of a distillery.
In 2010 Kavalan won its first international awards, including a gold medal for its Solist Sherry Single Cask Strength single malt at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It was also named Kavalan Distillery of the Year in 2015 by the same organization.
Its classic single malt was first released in April 2008 and remains the best seller. This is the whisky I brought home on a previous trip. It’s good, but compared to the scotch I could buy in Taiwan for almost half the price, it’s not a great value.
During my tour, I was told that the company has been expanding and expects to produce 10 million bottles of whisky and export to 60 countries. It was also beginning to distill gin in its old German stills.
It was cool to see that Kavalan developed its own method to treat casks for the whisky-aging process with all domestically-produced machinery. The company only imports barley, yeast, and casks for the distilling process.
The distillery does not use climate control during maturation and adds no coloring for consistency, which many scotch producers use. My guides explained that the whisky is more expensive because the lack of climate control leads to greater evaporation during maturation, thus a lower yield. The hot and humid Yilan climate supposedly allows the whisky to mature faster, which means the whisky is ready for the market after four or five years.
There’s a decent amount of history on the tour, though it only dates back to the plans that began in 2002. The second distillery wasn’t open to visitors, but they installed large windows for visitors to peer into. The grounds around it are pleasant to walk through, and are probably nicer now as the trees are bit older — and visitors can enjoy the cherry blossoms in the spring.
I was given a private viewing of a promotional film about the King Car Group that owns Kavalan — of course, it paints the owner in a positive light for his philanthropic work. Most tourists might not find the business interesting, I was more interested in it as an expat trying to understand more of Taiwan. I was also shown an art exhibition at the distillery because the company’s owner likes to promote local artists.
At the end of my tour, I was given a taste of a few of the whisky varieties. I didn’t have to pay NT$400 for four tastes, but that’s a reasonable price when you consider that some of those whiskies cost well over US$100 per bottle.
I was given tastes of the Classic Single Malt, Podium, Solist Amontillado, Solist Manzanilla, and Solist Pedro Ximénez. Most of the whiskies Kavalan produces are on the sweeter side for local tastes — they don’t make as many smoky or peaty blends.
The Classic is smooth and a little sweeter than most scotch. The Podium has a softer, more floral flavor and it has a sweeter aroma than the Classic. The Amontillado has more of a toasted nut aroma, but it’s milder flavor than the others I tried. The Manzanilla was my favorite — it’s a sherry cask whisky with a more bold, roasted aroma and smoky flavor with a hint of vanilla. The Pedro Ximénez is a lighter version of the Solist series but it has more of a briny, seaside flavor.
For some crazy reason, people can also pay NT$1500 (about US$50) to blend their own whisky. This sounds like a bad idea, but Kavalan has staff help visitors to avoid producing something undrinkable.
Instead, I walked a little over a mile down the road to Jim & Dad’s beer brewery (I had to call a taxi to get back to the bus after that because I was told the bus was unreliable).
Had I not been on assignment, I would’ve considered picking up a six-pack of Jim & Dad’s and headed to a nearby hot spring to spend the night in the area. It would’ve been more relaxing than taking a two-hour trip back to my apartment in Taipei.