Over the next few months, should you find yourself strolling through Times Square – in its New York rather than its Causeway Bay incarnation – spare a glance at the 11 high-definition LED billboards adorning the Thomson Reuters Building. They are advertising Kavalan, a single malt whisk(e)y from Taiwan. You will not be the first to be a little taken aback by seeing such a relatively obscure brand in such a high-profile location.
Most of the goods promoted here, at the so-called Crossroads of the World, are the world’s super brands, household names, veritable bywords for prestige and wantability. After all, the annual rent on just one Times Square billboard is somewhere between US$1 and US$4 million – well beyond the promotional spend of all but the most profitable of product lines.
Kavalan is certainly not in that league. At least, not yet. The Lee’s though, the family behind the brand, certainly have the money, even if – to date – not much of it has accrued from whisky sales.
Kavalan is now widely available in Hong Kong, China, and in many of the key international whisky markets, including the US and Britain. While in Asia it already enjoys a significant level of prestige, its status in the West remains that of a niche product – a distinct novelty in countries where Scotch and American spirits retain their traditional dominance.
While the majority of the big whisky brands have long histories, Kavalan has been on the market for just eight years. The company behind it, however, is a Taiwanese success with a provenance of some 60 years.
Back in 1956, the Chu Chen Industrial Company was established in Kaohsiung, one of Taiwan’s more southerly counties. Its initial line of pesticides and household cleaning products did well for the business and, in 1979, it diversified into packaged food and drinks, repackaging itself as the King Car Group in the process.
King Car, in turn, prospered, with it the Mr Brown brand of pre-mixed coffee, milk and sugar – despite sounding entirely detestable – proving an unlikely hit in Germany of all places. To this day, it remains the group’s cash cow.
In the eminently foreseeable future, however, it may at last be supplanted by Kavalan. Tien Tsai Lee, the company’s founder, has two passions – vintage cars (hence the name of his company) and whisky. It is the latter that he is now pinning the company’s future on.
Taiwan is, in fact, one of the world’s biggest markets for the spirit, with consumers buying more single malts than blends, despite the rapid international growth of the latter category over recent years. Significantly, it is now the only market in the world where that is true.
Until fairly recently, however, privately owned companies in Taiwan were not allowed to operate as distillers. Essentially, this made it impossible for such a thing as Taiwanese whisky to actually exist.
That all changed in 2002 when Taiwan joined the World Trade Organisation. By necessity, the local government had to surrender its long-established monopoly on producing alcohol.
Long hankering after having his own distillery, Lee set about establishing his own facility in Yi-Lan County. His chosen site was not far from Taipei, where King Car already had a bottled water production centre.
The prime requirement for any distillery, of course, is a good water source. Naturally, the site of the King Car’s Yuan Shan bottling operation had been chosen because of its easy access to pure mountain spring water.
Lee then engaged a team of Scottish consultants to help build and equip a state-of-the-art facility. This included establishing cooperage to manage the ex-bourbon and wine casks required to mature and finish the spirits.
The traditional pot stills he chose to employ are – not at all coincidentally – very similar to the “curiously small” stills favoured by the Macallan distillery and known for their appearance on Bank of Scotland currency notes. These were specially made for him by Forsyth’s Northeast Scotland.
Construction began in early 2005 and was completed by the end of the same year. The first distillation was then successfully completed in March 2006, with the first Kavalan single malt whisky released in 2008. In order to be sold as whisky in Taiwan, a spirit must have been matured for at least two years, compared to three in Scotland.
Although the King Car name was retained for the distillery – and has been used for some bottlings for the Taiwan domestic market – Lee sensibly realised that it was an association that probably wouldn’t travel well. This is especially true given that drink driving is an increasingly sensitive issue in many of the markets he is targetting.
The name “Kavalan” was chosen as way of honouring the history of the area where the spirit is now distilled. It literally means the “People living on the plain” and refers to an indigenous Yi-Lan tribe.
Back in 2005, however, Taiwan had no indigenous whisky makers, which saw Lee bring in a little Scottish expertise. From the outset, then, the Taiwan team was advised by Dr Jim Swan, a roving whisky consultant. Prior to his work with Kavalan, Swan had worked with distilleries in a number of unlikely settings, including England, Wales and Israel. He had also, of course, served his time in Scotland.
Ultimately, it was Swan who trained Ian Chang, the man now responsible for making the whisky. Originally from Taiwan, he also came armed with a degree in Food Technology, Flavours and Aromas from a UK university.
Chang, who jokes that “in Taiwan it’s normal to be paid one salary for several jobs”, is now King Car/Kavalan’s Master Blender/Whisky Maker, Brand Ambassador, Director of Global Business and Head of R&D.
“Kavalan gets a million visitors a year, more than the total number visiting every Scottish distillery”
While that’s a lot of responsibilities, Chang seems to have no trouble managing. He is seen as one of the brightest rising stars in the world of whisky, having worked closely with Swan on the Kavalan project since joining the company in 2005.
In the 2015 World Whisky Awards, Chang was named as Whisky Distillery Manager and the Master Distiller of the Year. It was an apt reward. On his watch the Kavalan whiskies have picked up a truly extraordinary collection of awards and accolades.
These include the Kavalan Solist Amontillado Sherry being recognised as the World’s Best Single Malt Whisky Single Cask at the World Whiskies Awards in London in 2016. This followed another WWA win for Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique as the 2015 Best Single Malt Whisky. Not bad going for such an upstart.
With Taiwan home to countless whisky fanatics, it is perhaps not surprising that the distillery now gets more than one million visitors a year. To put that into perspective, that is more than the entire annual total number of visitors to every distillery in Scotland,
Even with that amount of liquid, there remains the problem of what distillers term the Angels’ Share – the percentage of spirit that evaporates while being matured in the barrel. The hot climate means that the Angels in Yi-Lan are unusually thirsty. For this reason, Kavalan, as with many American whiskeys, can only spend a limited time in the barrel before too much of it simply disappears. Swan and Chang, however, are treating what most would see as a handicap as something of an opportunity and reducing the time in the barrel without damaging the flavour of the spirit.
This has partly been achieved by sophisticated in-house wood management, with the barrels treated so as to extract the maximum wood character in the minimum time. It is also partly to do with the fermentation, the stills and the distilling process, all of which are geared to getting maximum character into the newly made spirit prior to maturing.
There’s no doubt that Chang and his team are making fine single malt whiskies, particularly in the case of the Solist and Distillery Reserve ranges. Most notably, the tropical fruit character evident throughout the collection makes them genuinely distinctive. In the best possible sense, they are all clearly Made in Taiwan.
As the Times Square promotion clearly demonstrates, Kavalan is certainly willing to invest in brand building. It is also possible that, as time passes, Taiwanese whisky will become an internationally recognised category in the same way that Japanese whisky already is. In 2008, the government-owned Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor company themselves started distilling whisky under the Omar brand. It’s a lot cheaper than Kavalan, while TTL’s Nantou Distillery will presumably also be looking at the export markets.
As those billboards make clear, the Taiwanese are coming. Of that, Lee has no doubt, saying: “This is about telling people Kavalan Whisky is available in the US. We’re here and we’re in business.”