Food

The science behind how Kavalan hacked whisky-making

Aug 16, 2018

Taiwan’s Kavalan whisky distillery shows up on the global spirits stage each year, standing alone amid the competition from other regions steeped in whisky-making history.

Usually when you think whisky, you think Scotland, Japan, or maybe American bourbon. But Kavalan has become an equal in just 10 years, having started in 2008.

This year, it bagged nine gold medals at the San Francisco Spirits Competition, while founder Tien Tsai Lee and his son, Yu Ting Lee, were inducted into the Hall of Fame of the World Whiskies Awards.

Ian Chang, Kavalan’s master distiller, told us a couple of his tricks, on location at the distillery in Yilan, Taiwan.

Taiwan’s climate speeds things up

Kavalan whisky is usually reported to offer such depth and character due to the accelerated aging that takes place in the hot Taiwanese climate. The impact of the wood that takes four years in colder countries like Scotland and Sweden, happens in just one in Yilan.

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The trade off is that the angel’s share percentage—the whisky that evaporates from the cask each year—is much higher, so Kavalan’s loss is more substantial to that experienced in cooler climates. However, its whisky matures faster, and the huge King Car Group backing the distillery believes that positive outweighs the negatives.

Shaving, toasting, recharring

Yet, accelerated aging isn’t the only reason Kavalan has reached the top of the whisky world. If it was, distilleries would be popping up in every hot country and rising in the industry.

This isn’t the case, and Taiwan’s first distillery has a few more secrets to their production process. One of the processes that has been instrumental to Kavalan’s success is the STR process (shaving, toasting, and recharring) used for casks, created in collaboration with Dr Jim Swan, a legend in the whisky world who passed away in 2017.

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Kavalan needed to create a high-tech lab to compete with Western counterparts that had developed their methods the traditional way. Through trial-and-error, and much experimentation, the STR method was developed a few years after the distillery’s inception.

The system was used for Kavalan’s Solist Vinho Barrique expression, one of their most famed whiskies, named the “World’s Best Single Malt” at the World Whiskies Awards in 2015.

The goal is to get consistent results out of each wine cask—and therefore each batch of whisky.

Chang explains that the STR goal is to get consistent results out of each wine cask, which directly affects the eventual whisky flavor. Kavalan sources white and red wine casks from across the world, such as Portugal, France, Australia and the U.S., he says.

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Photo: George Koutsakis

“After the interiors of the casks are thinly shaved to get rid of acidic substances, we toast the barrels to release organic compounds from the wood,” he says.

Ex-wine casks are more complicated to work with, due to the remaining acidity and bacteria within the cask. Chang says: “In the final phase, we rechar the barrels with an intense fire to burn it to a crisp, bringing the pleasant caramels to the fore and once again bringing to life the wine flavors in the wood.

“Just some of the flavors achieved in the Vinho Barrique are pepper, spice, dates and fruits such as ripe melon, mango, kiwi and citrus.”

Pepper, spice, dates, ripe melon, mango, kiwi and citrus.

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Chang takes pride in Kavalan’s place atop the world stage, alongside Japan as its only Asian peer. The mission, when the distillery started, wasn’t just to compete but to lead Taiwan’s entrance into the race. They’ve now won some of the most prestigious titles like “Producer of the Year,” and “Distiller of the Year” at the huge International Wine & Spirits Competition.

He notes that Asian experts, such as the Japanese, tend to show a preference toward sherry-aged whiskies, bursting with dried fruit notes and spice. The Taiwanese population leans towards the easy-drinking, fresh Kavalan Classic while European markets tend to prefer sweeter expressions.

The French market prefers the Kavalan Solist Port Cask Strength, and the Italians greatly enjoy Kavalan’s bourbon expressions.