Whisky has always had a sense of place: the rolling hills of Scotland, local ingredients, a distiller who has devoted his life to the craft.
But what if you were able to forget about all of that? Could you create an even better whisky?
That question intrigued T.T. Lee, founder of The King Car Group in Taiwan, which produces everything from coffee to biotechnology to orchids to cleaning products. The company steered clear of spirits because of a law surrounding government control of production, but when Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2002 – and it became legal for a private company to own a distillery – Lee decided to take a gamble on whiskey.
Three years later, Taiwan’s first whisky, Kavalan, was born.
The newfound freedom to make whisky also gave Lee the freedom to make it any way he wanted – unlike distilleries in Scotland, which are heavily regulated. Lee wanted to see if he could engineer the world's best whiskey by using not just local ingredients, but the finest in the world.
And it turned out that he could. Kavalan was designated the World's Best Single Malt Whisky at the 2015 World Whiskies Awards, a blind taste test, besting Scottish brands that have spent generations crafting the same product.
So what did the Lee learn in just a few years that the Scots hadn't learned in generations? "What we have on our side is the flexibility and willingness to experiment, to take risks," he said during a tour of the distillery.
"For example, we have taken tremendous risks in terms of experimenting with different types of casks, the charring techniques, and we were able to break away from the traditional framework of what people perceive as the important elements of whiskey."
Creating whisky in Taiwan has not been without challenges.
Unlike Japanese distillers, who produce their products in cooler climates similar to Scotland’s, Lee wanted to make his whiskey in Taiwan's Yilin province, where temperatures are, on average, almost 30 degrees warmer. He brought in Jim Swan, a Scotch whisky consultant, to set up the distillery with traditional pot stills and temperature-controlled fermentation tanks.
Instead of emphasizing local products and hand-crafting, Kavalan promoted its global nature and the mechanization involved in ensuring quality, including constant temperature measuring with digital thermometers at every stage on the process, controlling the temperature during fermentation, and using instrument analysis for the blending. Many traditional Scottish distilleries leave a lot of aging process up to circumstance, with few using temperature controlled tanks while the whisky ferments.
Kavalan's process could be viewed as wholly controlled and mechanized whereas Scotch whisky typically has a lot more traditional dependence on the climate. It's a difference that brings Taiwan's spirit industry into the modern age.
"We apply a lot of technology into the production of whiskey," said Master Blender Ian Chang. "When I say this in the U.K., they say that whiskey is an art. But we think that whiskey is a fusion of science and art."
They also are not wedded to local ingredients, except for the water. Kavalan’s makers use the best materials they can find: yeast from South Africa and France; sherry casks from Spain; wheat from the U.S. and Sweden.
And Yilin’s once-derided climate has become a point of pride. The higher temperature speeds up the aging, creating a product that requires less time spent waiting. They call it maturation redefined.
The faster process and the sweetness of Taiwan’s water create a softer, more floral flavor profile that is geared for a particular palate – unlike Japanese whiskies, which often focus on replicating the peaty qualities of Scotch.
And as Kavalan raises its profile in the U.S., it is growing at a lightning pace. It sold almost 20,000 bottles last year, with its Classic Single Malt up 247 percent from 2014. The company hopes the U.S. will become one of its leading markets (60 percent of its product is sold domestically, and it exports to markets in Europe, Asia and Africa as well). Kavalan is still a very small portion of the market – Japanese whisky remains the fastest growing segment – but as drinkers look to expand their repertoire, interest appears high. According to International Wines and Spirits Record, Scotch whisky declined .2 percent globally in 2015 as a result of Japanese and other whiskies stealing market share.
Lee hopes Kavalan can change industry perceptions about a whiskey’s age. "In the past, people tended to obsess on how old this whiskey is in order to determine whether it is going to be a great drinking experience," he said. "I believe that in the future, the change that we want to bring to the market is to give people an option to just look at the quality of the whiskey."
If the awards and accolades are any indication, Kavalan is on the road to doing just that.
Editor's note on the spelling of whiskey in this piece: American and Irish liquor producers usually smell the spirit "whiskey," while Scottish and Canadian distilleries drop the "e." Most Asian producers, including those in Taiwan and Japan favor the "whisky" spelling.