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Construction of King Car company’s Kavalan distillery began in Yilan county in northeast Taiwan in 2005, with the first spirit running in March 2006. The Kavalan distillery was very much a passion project for King Car’s owner Tien‐Tsai Lee, a Scottish malt whisky superfan...
Construction of King Car company’s Kavalan distillery began in Yilan county in northeast Taiwan in 2005, with the first spirit running in March 2006. The Kavalan distillery was very much a passion project for King Car’s owner Tien‐Tsai Lee, a Scottish malt whisky superfan whose son Yu-Ting Lee is the current CEO.
The distillery began with four stills, making spirit under the guidance and direction of the late Dr. Jim Swan, who trained and mentored Kavalan’s Director of Production and Master Blender Ian Chang. Despite the company’s reverence for Scottish tradition in their whiskymaking, Kavalan has also embraced technology and innovation and was the first distillery to adopt Dr. Swan’s now industry standard STR method - Shaving, Toasting and Recharring old wine casks to renew the internal surface of the wood.
Kavalan’s visitor centre was opened in 2008 and became an immediate hit - after winning multiple awards the centre now hosts a million visitors each year.
2008 also saw the arrival of four sets of Holstein stills from Germany as Kavalan tried to increase production. However, these stills were taken out of use only two years later as the whisky produced was not felt to be of the correct character for Kavalan. In 2019 the Holstein stills were revived when Kavalan began producing gin using local botanicals including guavas and star fruit.
The subtropical climate at Kavalan plays a big role in the development of their whisky. The distillery's fermentation tanks must be temperature controlled and heat in the five-storey warehouses can exceed 40C, with the high temperatures and humidity resulting in an angel’s share loss of up to 15% evaporation annually. The company’s whiskies are therefore bottled young by European standards, given that each year of maturation in Taiwan is reckoned to be equivalent to 3-4 years of ageing in Scotland.
Kavalan’s youthful whiskies are not short of character or quality, however, and began winning international awards and tasting competitions almost immediately. Kavalan’s first release Kavalan Classic Single Malt bested several single malts at a Burns Night tasting in Edinburgh in 2009, with coverage in The Times bringing international attention. Kavalan Classic went on to win an IWSC Trophy in 2014.
The Solist range was introduced in 2009 and was soon picking up multiple awards as well. Career highlights for this single cask range include IWSC Trophies in 2013 for Solist Bourbon and Best Sherried Whisky and Supreme Winner at the Malt Maniacs Awards the same year for Solist Sherry. Kavalan's success culminated in 2015 when Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique, made using Dr. Swan’s STR-treatment, won Best Single Malt Whisky at the World Whisky Awards.
The resulting interest and acclaim for Kavalan’s whisky (and philosophy) has led to the widespread adoption of STR, particularly for new distilleries seeking to add character to their spirit quickly. Following this win, Kavalan began work in 2016 on a second stillhouse at the distillery, which expanded production with a further eight pairs of stills, bringing capacity up to 9 million litres per annum. Ten years after its foundation, Kavalan was one of the biggest malt whisky distilleries in the world.
Further awards have come in a steady stream for Kavalan, including numerous IWSC Trophies and further wins at the World Whisky Awards. Ian Chang announced his departure as master distiller in late 2020 to work at Karuizawa Distillers’ new distillery Komoro, but Kavalan will doubtless continue to go from strength to strength and its place in the pantheon of Asian whisky has long since been secured.