Looking Back: Dr Jim Swan on Kavalan Whisky

International whisky expert, the late Dr Jim Swan who played a major role in the development of Kavalan Whisky visited Sydney in 2013 to launch the Taiwanese whisky. This article is part of the ‘Looking Back’ series.

Dr Jim Swan on Kavalan Whisky – Photo © Cocktails & Bars

Dr Jim Swan

Speaking at a masterclass held during the Whisky Show in Sydney, Dr Jim Swan, renowned whisky expert joined the team at Kavakan Whisky in Taiwan to develop a high quality single malt in a hot climate.

Kavalan Whisky

Kavalan is the only whisky to be produced in Taiwan. Part of the King Car Group known for its beverage manufacturing, the relatively young distillery opened in 2006 and launched  later in December 2008. Kavalan is the name of the earliest tribe that inhabited Yilan, in Taiwan, a site chosen by the distillery’s founder for its cold and pure water supply. The whisky is made entirely in Taiwan using distillers yeast and barley from Scotland. The liquid undergoes 72 hours of fermentation and shorter maturation periods due to the hot climate.

The operation of distillery is built on technology and it is fully automated. Glenlivet lantern-shaped stills are used which allow vapours to drift gently out of the pot stills. A significant amount of contact with copper leads to purification and give the whisky its fruity and clean flavours.

Whisky Production in a Hot Climate

Dr Swan described the challenges of making and ageing whisky in a hot climate. Three major activities take place when making whisky in a hot climate:

  1. The extraction of wood occurs too easily and long periods of ageing will cause the oak to over-extract.
  2. Oxidation, an important process that gives a whisky its complexity, is inversely proportional to temperature which makes it a challenge to obtain a quality whisky.
  3. The subtraction of negative and cereal-type flavours from the wood is typically a slow reaction. In a hot climate, with a short maturation period, it poses further challenges.

Kavalan’s multi-storey warehouse is set at different temperatures where the bottom level sits at 27oC and the top level at 42oC. Some whiskies in the range spend time at the top in hot conditions. The loss of alcohol due to the angels’ share is significant, whereas in Scotland, a 12 year old whisky loses 25% or about 2% per annum, a 2 year old whisky in a hot climate loses 12% per annum.

These issues highlight the need to change the method of production of whisky to suit a hot climate and Dr Swan attributes all the whisky making processes – from mashing to ageing – to creating a whisky with the complexity of Kavalan.

Kavalan Whisky Range

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky was the first whisky produced and the best-selling of the range. At 40% ABV, it is aged in ex Bourbon refill barrels and Spanish oloroso sherry casks as well as new oak. The whisky is approximately 3 years old and has been selling in Europe with considerable quantity. Fruity, fresh, floral with mango, honey, pear and vanilla characteristics, it reflects the type of whisky made in a hot climate according to Dr Swan.

The Solist range is comprised of individual cask bottlings. The name is derived from the word Soloist, as in part of an orchestra, a word that the Taiwanese have trouble pronouncing hence it became “Solist”.

Kavalan Solist Ex-Bourbon is a Speyside style of whisky, delicate in flavour like The Glenlivet. Bottled at 57.6% ABV, which changes from cask to cask, it has fresh tropical fruitiness, with vanilla and oak spices.

Not available in Australia at the time, Kavalan Solist Vinho is matured in red wine casks from Spain and Portugal that have been toasted and re-charred which give the whisky its natural deep golden colour. Approximately 2.5 years old, the 46% ABV spirit on taste is complex and rich in flavour, with lots of vanilla, toffee and ripe fruit.

Kavalan Solist Fino Reserve is the most awarded in the Kavalan range and the only spirit ever to have won 100% at the Beverage Testing Institute. It was awarded the Best New World Single Malt Whisky in the 2012 World Whisky Awards, the expression received a 97-point rating from Jim Murray in his 2012 Whisky Bible, where the Kavalan Solist Fino was also named the “New World Whisky of the Year”. Available in limited numbers, it is aged in fino sherry casks, which, in the Taiwanese climate with shorter ageing period, creates a markedly complex whisky. Dark gold in colour, it has a marked aroma of sherry on the nose, with toffee, fudge and ripe citrus with a hint of green apples.

Other whiskies in the range include Kavalan Concertmaster, Kavalan Solist Sherry and King Car Conductor. During the masterclass, a peated whisky 55% ABV that is only available in the distillery was offered to taste.

According to Dr Swan, the original Kavalan Single Malt is the best product that embodies the spirit of the distillery and is the most popular with the Taiwanese.

Kavalan Distillery

The Kavalan distillery receives $1 million visitors a year with an annual production of 1.4 million litres based on pure alcohol, and it can accommodate up to 4 million as sales worldwide increase.

2013 saw the rollout of Kavalan worldwide in Europe, including France the largest single malt drinking country in the world, Canada and USA. Worldwide reactions have been very positive and during his travels, Dr Swan has found people to be in awe and “super-impressed” with the quality and complexity of the single malt.

“Dr Jim Swan on Kavalan” is part of the ‘Looking Back’ series which takes a historical lens to key industry personalities. The article is based on an interview originally published on our sister website Gourmantic.

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