Visiting the Kavalan distillery in Yilan

If you’ve ever visited Taiwan, you must have noticed Mr. Brown coffee shops all over the island. You could even say that they are the Starbucks of Taiwan.

I’m a bit of a coffee snob nowadays and mainly drink single-origin pourover coffee made at home, but when I need a cup when in Taiwan, the coffee at Mr. Brown is quick, convenient and actually not too bad.

Why do I bring this up? Because Mr. Brown coffee is owned by Taiwan’s King Car Group, a widely diversified conglomerate that also makes, among other things, household insecticide and world-class single malt whisky.

Yilan (宜蘭) is most famous for its hotsprings, innovative cuisine and 三星 spring onion, but it also happens to be the home of the Kavalan whisky distillery, which was built in 2006 and released its first bottle in December 2008. It has won numerous international awards since then, including the “World’s Best Single Malt” at the 2015 World Whisky Awards which solidified its position as a top-class global producer.

The distillery compound is lush and expansive, with wide grass patches accented with occasional pots of beautiful flowers, which happened to be orchids when we visited during the spring of 2016.

One interesting aspect of Kavalan whiskies is that they are released without any maturity age indication. I suppose it was a practical choice, given that they are a new producer and having to wait a decade or more before introducing flagship bottles would simply take too long.

Another challenge they faced was the shortage of casks during that period, making it difficult to find enough good quality ones to properly age their whisky. But these issues resulted in a unique approach that resulted in their signature taste, affirmed by the awards they’ve won since then.

Relying on advise by a whisky consultant, the late Dr Jim Swan, they bought used wine casks and refurbished them by shaving, toasting, re-charring and using them as refill casks. This, coupled with the warm Taiwan weather, contributed to their relatively young whiskies acquiring the complexity and maturity of their more established global counterparts.

After a long and leisurely stroll around the vast compound, we made our way to the visitor centre where the obligatory posters on their history were prominently displayed.

But our main purpose was to actually sample some of their stuff, and luckily, they were able to organise tasting sessions where we got to choose four whiskies per flight and compare the different flavour profiles. Since there were two of us, we were able to double the fun and sampled eight.

Unfortunately, their most famous whiskey, the Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique (which won the landmark 2015 award) was not available for tasting, but we did manage to find a small 200ml bottle for sale at the gift shop. It still remains unopened, waiting for a good occasion for us to sample it.

The conclusion of the sampling session was that we liked the Kavalan Podium Single Malt best, which was a bit surprising because the other whiskies we prefer tend to be blended malts like the Suntory Hibiki and Nikka Taketsuru. We found a bottle at the gift shop, and promptly bought that too.

After the sampling, we hung out at the Mr. Brown café upstairs for a while, before heading back to town.

The visit was longer and more laid-back than the one we made to the Nikka Yoichi distillery the year before, mainly because this was a free-and-easy trip vs our Hokkaido packaged tour, but also due to the friendlier spring weather.

The Kavalan distillery is unlikely to be high on the list of tourist spots in Yilan, but if you enjoy your whisky, it’s definitely worth a half-day excursion. And when you’re there, make sure not to miss the sampling flight.

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