Taiwan isn’t just importing and consuming malt whisky. In the time it takes to mature a 15-year-old Scotch, it has become a serious player in creating its own products. SMWS spirits director Kai Ivalo found two sides to Taiwan’s whisky world with visits to the island’s Nantou and Kavalan distilleries

Reading Time: 6 minutes

It’s wet and overcast in Eastern Taiwan, a familiar enough climate for someone arriving from Scotland, if it wasn’t for the sticky heat. I’ve travelled from the capital Taipei on a one-hour high-speed train then taken a short taxi ride here to Nantou City, home to the distillery of the same name that’s owned by Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Cooperation (TTL), the state-owned manufacturer of tobacco and alcohol.

SMWS spirits director Kai Ivalo gets a warm welcome at Nantou distillery in Taiwan.

TTL’s winery dates back to 1978 and by 1984 it was also blending whisky, brought in bulk from Scotland. Pricing and a growing domestic demand for whisky led TTL to set up its own malt whisky distillery in 2008, where they also produce other spirits, including lychee wine and liqueurs.

My guide for the day is Chung Pei-Yuan, senior technician in Nantou’s Quality Section and a 2016 graduate of Heriot-Watt University’s Brewing & Distilling course in Edinburgh.

“The production process is much the same here as in Scotland, but the climate and the fact that the distillery is part of a wider operation play their part in some interesting differences,” Pei-Yuan tells me. “The intense summer heat means that we don’t carry out any distillation between June and August.”

Kai and Chung Pei-Yuan in Nantou's racked warehouse.

The heat also means that the fermentation process requires refrigerated water to be circulated through cooling jackets on the washbacks, to bring the wash down to 18-19 degrees before fermentation can begin. After that the jacket acts as an insulating layer. The fermentation period varies between 60 and 84 hours, with weekends accounting for the longer period.

Barley isn’t grown on Taiwan, so Nantou imports it from Scotland. That includes both unpeated and peated (35ppm) malt, although Pei-Yuan says that peated is less popular with Taiwan whisky drinkers. “The preference here is for sherried style whiskies, they reflect more our local food culture and taste for sweetness,” he says.

To a Scotch whisky enthusiast the stillroom looks mostly familiar, with three of the four stills from Forsyth’s in Scotland.

Three of Nantou's four stills come from Forsyth's in Scotland.

“The distillery can produce up to 400,000 litres of pure alcohol per year,” says Pei-Yuan. “It’s still a largely manual process that relies on the stillmen to make the cut. There are up to three different shifts in a day and that means the cut may vary depending on who’s on duty.”

FAST-TRACK MATURATION

As we cross from the stillhouse to the maturation warehouses Pei-Yuan points out an odd-looking lone tree, the survivor after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that was centred on Nantou county in 1999. It’s not just the climate that whisky makers in Taiwan have to contend with.

Casks are filled at 59 or 60% abv and the angels are well rewarded in Taiwan, with evaporation losses of between 6 to 8 per cent per year. After only four years the strength will be around 56% abv and between 27 to 34 per cent of the cask will have already been lost to the angels.

Traditional methods are still very much a part of operations at Nantou.

The warehouses are organised by cask type, with a separate warehouse for ex-bourbon and another for sherry, wine or brandy casks. Thanks to Nantou’s production of other spirits it also has a team of four coopers on site. The warehouse is equipped with metal racking to act as protection in the event of earthquakes. I note a particularly large spider in one of the warehouses and ask if that’s also there to protect the casks.

With the tour complete, we head to the visitor centre to try some cask samples and find out more about Nantou’s plans.

“Our first single malt whisky was released just six years ago and soon won international awards and accolades,” says Pei-Yuan. “The Nantou brands of Omar and Yushan have seen rapid international sales over the past two years, and that means we’re drawing up plans to further expand the distillery.”

With peated and unpeated varieties and a range of cask types, there’s a broad range of flavours available. And that’s before you see the whiskies finished in casks that previously held some of the other products that are made on site, including lychee liqueur and orange brandy.

As is so often the case, it’s all to soon before I have to say goodbye, thank my hosts for their time and hospitality, head back out into the rain for the return train back to Taipei.

A GIANT RISES

The next day could hardly be more of a contrast. Bright blue skies, sunshine and a road journey from Taipei to Yilan County on the eastern side of the island leads through fascinating countryside to the home of Kavalan distillery.

Taiwan's Kavalan distillery is one of the 10 largest in the world.

“You’re lucky to enjoy such unusual conditions,” Kavalan brand ambassador Kaitlyn Tsai tells me on arrival. “We’re surrounded by mountain ranges, and get around 280 days of rain per year here.”

My first impression of Kavalan is its scale. Kaitlyn says it attracts a million visitors a year, not least because Yilan County is a popular holiday destination area. Most visitors come from Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Thailand.

The distillery has a production capacity of nine million litres of pure alcohol (it’s ‘only’ producing six million at the moment), which puts it in the top 10 largest whisky distilleries in the world. Kavalan malt whisky is now sold in 60 countries.

Kavalan has 10 pairs of stills, across its two plants, all the same to ensure consistency of spirit.

Together with an impressive haul of awards, these are significant achievements when you consider that the distillery is only 14 years old. But it isn’t surprising when you learn more about its parent company the King Car Group and the vision of Kavalan’s founder Tien-Tsai Lee.

“His original ambitions were for a brewery or winery, but a love of whisky and a vision for a Taiwan whisky were realised when we joined the World Trade Organisation at the start of 2002 and the state liquor monopoly ceased,” says Kaitlyn.

The mighty King Car Group doesn’t lack ambition or commitment, and set about creating a force in the world of malt whisky. As some Society members will know, it did so with the help of the legendary whisky consultant Dr Jim Swan, and is rightly recognised as one of his greatest achievements.

The scale of the distillery operations is similarly vast. Success has led to Kavalan now operating two distillery plants. The newer one – which isn’t open to the public – opened in 2016 and is a copy of the first. As with Nantou, the barley is imported, with 90 per cent coming from England. Since 2016 this has also included batches of peated malt. The yeast is also imported, a mix from France and South Africa to help achieve the target flavour profile. Once again, the hot and humid climate has to be accounted for in the process. The 40 washbacks are all temperature controlled and deliver a 60-hour fermentation.

Kavalan is best known for the shaved, toasted and recharred wine casks pioneered by whisky consultant Dr Jim Swan.

Kavalan believe that 70 per cent of the flavour comes from the cask, so there’s a focus on ensuring a consistent quality of new make spirit coming off the stills. And there are plenty of stills – 10 pairs across the two plants, all the same to ensure consistency in the spirit. The spirit stills feature a lyne arm with a steep downward angle to deliver a fruity and rich spirit. They also feature sub coolers in addition to the condensers to cool and condense the spirit.

Given the philosophy on flavours and casks, it’s no surprise that Kavalan have extensively researched and developed their wood policy and approach to maturation. It’s perhaps best known for the shaved, toasted and recharred wine casks pioneered by Dr Jim Swan, but I also see a wide range of different sherry, wine and bourbon casks.

If dealing with the climate is a challenge in the process, it’s the maturation that makes the most of the sub-tropical conditions. In the warehouses, the windows are shut to build up the heat.

“On the fifth floor it can reach 42 to 45 degrees Celsius, while it will be just 20 degrees on the bottom,” says Kaitlyn. “We store the biggest casks, such as sherry butts, on the top floor, with wine casks below and bourbon barrels on the bottom floor. In the winter we open the windows to encourage cool air circulation, so the casks experience significant temperature fluctuations. That helps or even seems to speed up the maturation.”

Kai tries his hand at creating his own expression of Kavalan in the distillery's visitor centre.

As a result, the angels’ share is even more significant than at Nantou, with losses of between 10 to 12 per cent per year. But with humidity of around 80 per cent, the alcohol strength drops over time. Maturation is for a minimum of four years and casks are stored on pallets. They’re also tied together as part of the precautions in case of earthquakes.

The visitor centre, which can expect to receive 10,000 visitors in a single weekend, is a massive space, with all manner of tasting experiences available. A fun blending experience allows me to create my own expression of Kavalan – beautifully packaged and personalised for me to bring home.

Expect to see a lot more about the malt whiskies from Taiwan. Interest is building and the commitment to growth and quality is clear. The only surprise is that there aren’t plans for more new distilleries on the island – at least not yet.


A TALE OF TWO DISTILLERIES

NANTOU

Founded: 1978 (whisky since 2008)

Owner: Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Cooperation

Stills: 2 wash and 2 spirit

Washbacks: 8

Capacity: 400,000 litres per year

Fermentation: 60-84 hours

Warehousing: Racked

KAVALAN

Founded: 2005

Owner: King Car Group

Stills: 10 wash and 10 spirit

Washbacks: 40

Capacity: 9 million litres per year

Fermentation: 60 hours

Warehousing: Palletised


This feature is from the August 2019 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership

Give us a follow or like us!