America, Meet Kavalan: The Taiwanese Whisky Poised to Take Over the U.S. Market
To the average American drinker, Taiwanese whisky remains shrouded in mystery. Bourbon and American rye reigns supreme, with the Irish, Canadians and Scottish forever nipping at their mighty heels. Among more discerning crowds, an interest in lauded Japanese brands like Suntory, Yamazaki, Hibiki and Nikka has been steadily on the rise. But Taiwanese? What does an island known for semiconductors and soup dumplings know about mash bills and rickhouses?
The answer, in short, is a whole darn lot. Since 2006, Yilan County whisky giant Kavalan has been chugging tactfully away at securing Taiwan a spot on the international spirits map. To date, the company’s increasingly crowded trophy shelf showcases a bevy of prestigious awards, including platinums and golds from the International Review of Spirits, and multiple “World’s Best” titles at World Whiskies Awards, among others. And if you know anything about Taiwanese geography, these accolades come as no surprise. Yilan’s surplus of fresh, clean, ice cold spring water makes it comparable to Scotland’s famed Speyside region and the weather, a reliable mix of Kentucky-style heat and humidity in the summers and UK-style damp cold in the winters, cause the whisky to mature quickly, efficiently and consistently. It’s the best of both boozy worlds.
Until now, Kavalan has intentionally kept their line way up on the tippy top shelf, focusing on perfecting their art rather than flooding the market. But this fall, they’re changing the game by introducing Distillery Select, the company’s first moderately priced and cocktail-friendly creation, to us whisky-crazed Western masses.
“Since we launched in the U.S. five years ago, we’ve had many suggestions and comments from the U.S. consumers, mostly mixologists and bartenders, saying that they would like to create cocktails with Kavalan,” Master Blender Ian Chang explained during an early August media presentation at the distillery. “But the thing is, even with the Classic or with the Concertmaster, which are the two, I would say, most entry-level single malts from Kavalan, they find that the cost is still too high. They wanted something affordable but also suitable for high quality cocktails.”
Specifically formulated for the U.S. market, Distillery Select was designed to fit those needs. A good cocktail spirit demands versatility—in an artform based in ingenuity, the last thing you want is a one trick pony—and in order to ensure the final product was as mutable as it was tasty, Kavalan departed from the heavily barrel-focused aging process that made it famous. Instead of letting their booze sit in casks well-saturated with the port, sherry, bourbon or rum that originally filled their wooden bellies, a practice common among European-style distilleries not bound to Bourbon’s one-and-done barrel rule, Distillery Select only saw the insides of second- or third-use barrels resulting in a smoother, more delicate and unadulterated taste.
“With Kavalan Distillery Select, what we try to showcase is the most fundamental qualities of Kavalan—the fruitiness, a bit floral, with this very nice honey type of character—without too much influence from the previous fill and without too much influence from the cask itself,” Chang noted. “Inside, you can nose a very nice green apple, mango, cherry, and also pineapple. And on top of that, you have honey and vanilla, without too much influence from the wood. The woodiness, I think, is just the right amount. It’s lighter and more fragrant. Our domestic bartenders, they find this one very good for mixing with cocktails. It has become an instant hit.”
That’s not all to say Distillery Select is mixed drinks or bust. “But if you don’t like cocktails, this one is also perfect to be enjoyed neat or with water,” he continued. “I find this one really easy drinking, very, you know, smooth and mellow, that’s all. Forty-three percent alcohol. Even for beginner, I think he or she will find this fairly easy to appreciate.”
Another thing that’s easy to appreciate? The pricetag. “Our cheapest [release] in the U.S. used to be, I think, $89.99, and then the next one is $99.99. But this is $59.99,” explained Chang. “In terms of price, I think this is going to be very competitive. Personally, I describe it as our Model Three. Our Tesla…you know, but not recalled.”
Anticipate Distillery Select filtering into stateside liquor stores and bars by early October, and we’re not just talking a few bottles here or there. “Before, Kavalan was all about quality but not quantity,” the Master Blender added. “I think for the future, we can have both quality and also quantity, as well.”
Buckle up, Louisville and hang onto your kilt, Islay. Taiwan has officially entered the ring.
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