Whisky re­nais­sance emerges from Tai­wan

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page -

WHEN the Yan­gon Whisky Club held a Whisky World Cup ear­lier this year, par­tic­i­pants se­lected Tai­wan’s up­start Kavalan whisky as the sec­ond best of 20 brands sam­pled from around the planet.

It’s not just Yan­gon that loves Tai­wan’s new spirit – Kavalan is rapidly out­shin­ing vet­eran brands on the global stage, as the is­land fast earns a rep­u­ta­tion as a stamp­ing ground for con­nois­seurs.

“Kavalan is an in­cred­i­bly ac­com­plished whisky,” says James Ersk­ine, who runs the Yan­gon Whisky Club and or­gan­ised the World Cup. “It could be ar­gued that it was the best whisky to fea­ture in the fi­nals.”

Tai­wan’s whisky-drink­ing tra­di­tion is noth­ing new, fu­elled by long busi­ness din­ners and a “bot­toms up” cul­ture of throw­ing back hard liquor.

In 2015 it ranked as the fourth-largest mar­ket by value for Scotch, be­hind the US, France and Sin­ga­pore, ac­cord­ing to the Scotch Whisky As­so­ci­a­tion.

But now a flour­ish­ing scene of spe­cialised bars and tast­ing work­shops has emerged as Tai­wanese drinkers be­come thirsty for in­depth ex­per­tise.

Help­ing to gal­vanise in­ter­est is the is­land’s home­grown Kavalan dis­tillery. Set among rice fields in north­east­ern Yi­lan county, it sees a mil­lion vis­i­tors a year.

“A lot of peo­ple only know how to drink, but they don’t know how it is made,” says CEO Lee Yu-ting, who hopes the dis­tillery can “ed­u­cate” con­sumers.

Kavalan was founded just 11 years ago by lo­cal con­glom­er­ate King Car – best-known for mass pro­duc­ing bot­tled wa­ter and canned cof­fee.

The brain­child of Lee’s fa­ther, King Car founder Lee Tien-tsai, ex­perts were scep­ti­cal that good whisky could be pro­duced in such a hu­mid cli­mate.

But Kavalan has suc­ceeded in wow­ing the in­ter­na­tional whisky cir­cle.

It earned its global stripes by tak­ing first place in a high-pro­file Lon­don blind tast­ing in 2010, beat­ing four Scotches and one English malt just two years after its whisky hit the mar­ket.

In 2015 Kavalan’s Solist Vinho Bar­rique was named the “World’s Best Sin­gle Malt Whisky” by the pres­ti­gious World Whiskies Awards.

And this year it scooped the “World’s Best Sin­gle Cask Sin­gle Malt Whisky” at the same awards for its Solist Amon­til­lado – named after a Span­ish sherry which had pre­vi­ously been stored in the casks.

Kavalan has cap­i­talised on the trop­i­cal cli­mate to de­velop a method that al­lows it to age whisky more quickly, says CEO Lee.

That means it can hit the shelves within five years, com­pared with 10 years or more in tra­di­tional pro­duc­tion re­gions.

“Peo­ple tend to judge the quality based on its age – that’s not al­ways cor­rect,” says Lee.

“Tai­wan is the new player in the whisky world.”

Ersk­ine, who noted that Kavalan’s process is in­spired by Scot­tish meth­ods and the work of Scot­tish chemist Jim Swan, put it slightly dif­fer­ently.

“Kavalan is a Scotch made bet­ter than they do it in Scot­land,” he said.

‘Tai­wan’s awak­en­ing’

Just over an hour away from Kavalan’s dis­tillery, in the cap­i­tal Taipei, a grow­ing num­ber of spe­cial­ist bars are tes­ta­ment to the is­land’s bur­geon­ing whisky scene.

Tucked away in a quiet al­ley­way, “L’ar­riere-cours” wel­comes a steady stream of cus­tomers on a rainy Tues­day night against a back­drop of jazz.

Neatly dressed in dark grey waist­coat and bow-tie, bar man­ager Peter Huang says the Tai­wanese have ex­pe­ri­enced an “awak­en­ing” when it comes to how they drink.

“Drink­ing used to be per­vaded by the ‘gan bei cul­ture,” he told AFP, which means drain­ing a glass in a sin­gle swig, a drink­ing style of­ten en­cour­aged in Asia whether at a busi­ness din­ner or at a pri­vate karaoke room with friends.

“Con­sumers are be­com­ing more cu­ri­ous about what they’re ac­tu­ally putting into their stom­achs,” said Huang, at­tribut­ing the trend to a pro­lif­er­a­tion of tast­ing work­shops held by bars and lo­cal ex­perts.

Stocked with over 400 bot­tles, from Scotches to Kavalan to In­dia’s Am­rut, L’ar­riere-cours does not have a set drinks menu. In­stead, bar­tenders chat with cus­tomers to de­ter­mine what to serve them.

The bar food also re­flects its whisky ob­ses­sion – slices of chicken, more tra­di­tion­ally mar­i­nated in Chi­nese rice wine, are in­stead soaked in whisky from the Scot­tish is­land of Is­lay.

For reg­u­lar Mike Su, 35, the per­sonal ap­proach and wide selection has won his loy­alty.

“You can try each kind one-by-one to find the drink you like, most suited to your mood that day,” said Su, who works at a tech­nol­ogy equip­ment dis­trib­u­tor.

“It is find­ing plea­sure through ex­per­i­ment­ing.”

Ed­in­burgh-based whisky ex­pert, writer and re­searcher Charles Ma­cLean says the level of whisky knowl­edge in Tai­wan is im­pres­sive.

“In my judge­ment, there are more malt whisky con­nois­seurs in Tai­wan than any other coun­try I have vis­ited,” he tells AFP.

Ma­cLean has fol­lowed Kavalan’s rise from the be­gin­ning -- it was he who ar­ranged the Lon­don tast­ing where it first rose to in­ter­na­tional promi­nence.

He de­scribes the brand as “con­sis­tently ex­cel­lent”.

“Of course it is not bet­ter than Scotch – or any other non-Scotch whiskies – it is dif­fer­ent, made with the same care and at­ten­tion as other whiskies are.”

While Ma­cLean says Tai­wan still has to catch up with its more es­tab­lished com­peti­tors, it is now on its way.

“It is too soon to de­scribe Tai­wan as be­ing in the top whisky re­gions in the world,” he said. “But it al­ready has a rep­u­ta­tion.” –

A vis­i­tor walks in front of a whisky ad­ver­tise­ment at the com­pany’s pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity in Yi­lan.

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