Taiwan’s Kavalan Whiskey Arrives Stateside

  • Richard Carleton Hacker

Say “single malt,” and usually the next word to roll off the tongue is “scotch.” However, single malts can be made almost anywhere, with Ireland, Japan, and the United States being three of the most notable producers outside of Scotland.

But one place a single-malt whiskey has never been made—until recently—is Taiwan. The reason is that, until Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2002, all alcoholic beverages in the country had to be produced by government-owned wineries, breweries, and distilleries. But with WTO membership, private ownership of these entities became legal. Thus, the decades-old dream of T. T. Lee, the 80-year-old chairman and founder of the Taiwanese drinks conglomerate King Car Group, was finally realized—that of having his own distillery, which is currently the only distillery in Taiwan.

Built in the scenic county of Yilan, where Lee was born, the distillery and its single-malt whiskeys are named Kavalan, after the aboriginal ethnic group that inhabited the area. Construction of the distillery began in 2005 and was completed in nine months, a notable achievement, considering that it normally takes at least five years to build a distillery from scratch.

“The very first drop of Kavalan new-made spirit was produced on March 11, 2006,” says Ian Chang, Kavalan’s master blender. “That was a very historical moment, not just for Kavalan, but for Taiwan as well, because it was the very first Taiwanese spirit produced. Since then, we’ve been producing whiskey 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

The sweet, soft water used in Kavalan’s distillation comes from the nearby Yuanshan and Central Mountain Ranges, the barley is imported from Europe, and the copper pot stills were built to order in Scotland. But it is the barrels that make the most dramatic difference in Kavalan, which may be the ultimate vatted single-malt whiskey—meaning that numerous aged barrels of spirits are mixed and matched to produce the whiskey’s specific characteristics. 

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