I always love it when a family member comes back from California. I get some goodies. Which made me realize…golly. I’m on my seventh review, and I haven’t reviewed any Asian spirits yet? What kind of a proud Asia-based spirits enthusiast Asian am I?
For whisky fans who have been into whisky for at least a decade, it’s safe to say that Japanese whisky was what caused the initial awareness and desire for Asian spirits. I don’t fall into that camp. I had just entered college a decade ago. I grew up thinking JW Blue Label was the holy grail. Damn. Good thing it’s not. Also, damn. I’m getting old. Anyhow, my first exposure to fine Asian spirits was Kavalan. I heard about them for the first time through the now dead K&L Spirits Journal podcast, and I think that Kavalan episode aired middle or late 2014. Ian Chang, current master blender, was the guest. I can also swear on my dehydrating brain cells this was before the big Jim Murray Yamazaki Sherry Cask announcement.
I remember Ian saying something along the lines of that they had entered an international whisky competition where the entries were tasted blind, and that they got a gold medal. Yes, they submitted Kavalan as a Scotch. Whiskywash writes a good article about Kavalan. I applaud their early embracing of transparency even before it was a thing. Back then, brands still had to be “coaxed” into being clear about what went into their products. I think it was after the Daily Beast MGP article spread like wildfire that brands grew more “encouraged” to share openly about their content.
Luckily for me, my sister went to Taiwan later that year, and she got me a sample bottle of Kavalan Classic. Because it earned gold in a Scotch competition, I had no other expectations for it aside from the assumption that it would taste similar to Scotch. It did; I’ll talk more about this below. I’m still curious which distillery the stills are from that they used as the benchmark for the Kavalan stills, as I am told they tried different distillates before choosing a still to emulate.
Despite being a fan of Kavalan, I’m not too big into their Solist range. Except for the Fino and Amontillado Solists, I find the rest overpowered by the cask influence. They are a huge reason why I avoid single-cask first-fill releases now. After Jim Murray’s crowning of Yamazaki, people went crazy for Asian whisky. When the curious and hype beasts couldn’t get Japanse whisky, they turned toward Kavalan, whose Vinho Barrique won gold in IWSC 2015. It stirred quite a phenomenon here. The elderly folks of Chinese descent who were diehard Johnnie Walker drinkers suddenly clamored for Kavalan blindly, and and also for single malt. Chinese or Asian pride, they said. A lot of Chinese immigrants came over to the Philippines fleeing Mao and the civil war, and it’s safe to say that a lot of us see Taiwan as some sort of a province rather than another country. It’s only a two-hour flight away from Manila, after all.
Being a pessimist and knowing a bit about how some awards work, I thought Kavalan only sent whisky “honey barrels” to win awards. The more awards the Solists won, the more iffy I felt about them. That said, Ian Chang won me over after meeting him for the first time at a tasting in Manila some time in 2018. Humble, welcoming and intelligent are the words I’d use to describe him. Despite being the master blender, he also acts as a brand ambassador. He can interact well with both the geeks and the newbies. Kavalan is lucky to have him.
A promotional bit for Kavalan: I was at their distillery this August. It’s only an hour bus ride away from Taipei to Yi Lan, and then a 10 to 15 minute cab ride from the bus station to the distillery. The cab ride will cost you about 150 NTD, or $4.88. I can say that while the distillery grounds are picturesque, the DIY part of the tour in the still house lacks a personal touch. But who am I to complain? The tour is free!
No staff are around the still house. People can just wander about at will. Still, I have to admit that Ian was very nice and assigned someone to take me around. Aurora, the guide, was excellent in answering my questions, and the DIY blending in the main guest area was fun. There was a small fee for this part, but it was worth it. They give you three samples of whisky with which to blend, and you get to take home the blend you made. There’s also a well-stocked distillery store with a tax refund booth.
King Car Conductor – review
On the nose: Tropical fruit salad! Sweet and floral notes of papayas, lychee, strawberries, fuji apples, bananas, coconut husk, hints of sultanas, hints of Frangelico, lemon oils and hints of old furniture.
In the mouth: More balanced sweet and floral notes compared to the nose. Initial but looming notes of sulfur, old furniture and sultanas, followed by rotating flavors of coconut husk, mangos, hints of lychee, some sort of butterscotch, vanilla, caramel, and lingering banana. Very good oily texture.
Kavalan Classic – review
On the nose: Ethanol; creamy, nutty sherry notes; hints of chocolate, coffee, and a sharp astringence and tartness. Overused loose tea leaves and caramelized orange oil.
In the mouth: Coffee, vanilla, honey, cookies, overused green tea leaves, hints of dark chocolate, lingering banana syrup, and old furniture
The interaction of bourbon and sherry influences in the King Car is well balanced. Despite my dislike for most ex-sherry casked spirits because of my newfound sensitivity to sulfur, I can drink a lot of this. I prefer the smell over the taste, though. I like how this tastes more like an oily 40% ABV whisky than a hotter 46% whisky. The layering of flavors here are excellent.
The Classic is very light in all aspects and has a short finish. The lightness in flavor makes me think of a less grass-y and cereal-y but brighter Lowland single malt. This certainly has younger spirits in it, hence the hot ethanol aroma. Whisky newbies will certainly like this for the welcoming texture and sweet flavors.
For $80 a bottle, I wouldn’t buy the Classic. At about $90, The King Car Conductor is the best bang for the buck Kavalan one can get. It’s as good as and fairly cheaper than the more sought after Solists, and it’s become my favorite among all the Kavalan single malts. Lucky for me, even most Kavalan fans are not too familiar with this release due the labeling. It seems like only a few people pay attention to the fact that Kavalan’s parent company is King Car.
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