“Good afternoon, lady and gentlemen”. As I glanced around the SCOTCH whisky bar at The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, I realised that Ian Chang, master blender of Kavalan whisky, was correct. I was, indeed, the only lady in the room. Admittedly, it’s been quite a while since I’ve been addressed as such. Well, not outwith the realms of sarcasm at any rate.
However, MALT reader, fear not. This isn’t another one of my ‘whisky and women’ rants. You see, what became more apparent, as I looked around, was that Mr Chang and I had, at least, one thing in common; we were the only two people in the room without beards. I’m sure there’s a whole other article in the making on the correlation between beards and whisky but, for now, as my knowledge on the former is minimal, I’ll just focus on the latter.
The latter being Kavalan whisky and it was for this reason that I found myself amongst such a hirsute gathering. Organised by Arthur Motley of Royal Mile Whiskies, this was an early afternoon trade event prior to the Kavalan tasting at Holyrood Distillery later that evening.
In all honesty, I could have listened to Ian Chang all day. His humility is both refreshing and engaging and, without the usual marketing spiel that you come to expect at these occasions, this was a winning combination for a cynical old boot such as yours truly.
For those of you who’d like more than just an outline of the background to Kavalan, take a look at Noortje’s piece from last year as well as Peter’s more recent write up.
In brief, though, Kavalan distillery is located in north east Taiwan and is part of the King Car group. It was established in 2005 with its first whisky, the Kavalan Classic Single Malt – a vatting of approximately six different casks including refill, bourbon, wine and sherry – released in 2008.
The location of Kavalan, Ian Chang pointed out, lends itself to one important difference regarding the production of whisky compared to that in Scotland: climate. Due to the heat in Taiwan, 98% of casks used are made from American oak; European oak would impart too much bitterness and dryness to the whisky. In the maturation warehouse, temperatures can be high – on the top floor they soar to as much as 45°C – and this results in a much greater loss of spirit through evaporation. As a result, you won’t find older Kavalan whisky on the shelves.
Although none of the current range has an age statement, the minimum maturation time is four years and, for larger casks, this is extended to six or seven years. Young? Yes; but the climate difference means that the maturation process is heightened. And, let’s face it, this is actually a respectable age amid the recent barrage of young Scotch whisky releases.
The distillery used to face a loss of between 14-16% each year but the team has devised ways to reduce this to between 10-12%. They have also recently developed new methods, including spraying mist on the casks and water on the warehouse floors, to reduce this even further to around 8%. As a result, Ian hinted at the possibility that an age-statemented expression could be released in the not too distant future.
We tasted six different expressions: Kavalan Single Malt Whisky; Kavalan Concertmaster – Port Cask Finish; King Car Whisky – Conductor; Kavalan Sherry Oak; Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask; Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique.
Due to the simple reason that I only took three sample bottles with me to the tasting, and there really wasn’t enough time to write tasting notes there and then for the other three expressions, here are my thoughts on the following:
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask Finish – review
Matured in casks which previously contained ruby port for three to four years and is bottled at 40% strength. This will cost £61.95 from Master of Malt, or £61.45 from the Whisky Exchange.
Colour: Irn Bru orange
On the nose: Initial hint of pencil sharpenings. Chocolate covered brazils mixed with rum and raisin ice cream. After a while in the glass, there’s a strawberry jam note followed by foam bananas. Notes of old leather and cigar smoke.
In the mouth: Heat! A whack of white pepper at first developing into more of a ginger note heading into the finish. Mulled wine. Boozy trifle. A dark chocolate, fairly bitter note appears towards the end.
Kavalan Sherry Oak – review
Matured in American oak Oloroso sherry casks at 46% strength. This is available from Master of Malt for £84.90, or the Whisky Exchange for £85.75.
On the nose: Battenberg cake. Apple crumble and custard. Cinnamon. Notes of red apple come through quite strongly after a while followed by tinned pears and cream.
In the mouth: This has a nice, creamy texture. There’s prune juice initially followed by dark chocolate. Black Forest gâteau. The dark chocolate becomes more like chocolate covered raisins into the finish which eventually becomes drier and slightly more bitter.
For a different take, read Phil’s review from June last year.
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique – review
Matured in casks which have previously contained red or white wine and bottled at 58.6% strength. Master of Malt will charge £199 for a different bottling strength release, and the Whisky Exchange is in the same boat but for £210.
Colour: dusty cedar
On the nose: Berry compote. After a while, fresh raspberries and blackberries. Strawberry jam. Wax crayons. There’s a hint of cream soda in the background. With water, slight notes of new leather and tobacco smoke gradually appear.
In the mouth: Takes a second or two but lemon Opal Fruits (or Starburst if you’re not stuck in the 80s) begin to emerge. With a few drops of water, strawberry Chewits followed by green grapes. This is light and vibrant yet with a hint of white pepper appearing on the tip of the tongue. On the finish, there’s red apple.
Each of these whiskies was very good and would have scored one point more had it not been for their price tags. It’s clear that Kavalan’s wood policy and cask management is of paramount importance and the supply of good quality casks undoubtedly comes with a premium to pay.
Due to the demand in refill casks, they are now refilling their own as the current boom has made it increasingly difficult to acquire them from third parties. In addition, 2017 was the first year that Kavalan embarked on its own programme of seasoning casks. With casks seasoned in Spain for at least three years, followed by a minimum of four years to mature the whisky, it won’t be until 2025 until we see the results of this on the shelves. Ian was confident that this change would not alter the flavour profiles or be detrimental to the quality of the whisky. However, as seasoning casks is a far more costly undertaking, only time will tell if it has any overall impact on the price.
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement. Photographs kindly provided by the Whisky Exchange.
What, no beard Justine?! But seriously, we passed (both of us beardless) through Taipei airport recently en route to Sapporo, Japan (another sad story re Nikka there). Hoped to find some interesting duty-free Kavalans but alas, nothing we couldn’t already get in Australia. We remain envious.
Hi Jude, no Omar whisky from Nantou to buy?
Still working on the beard!
Fingers crossed you find your Kavalan soon (and at the right price, of course)
I am sorry, but your scale is getting more confusing by the day. All of these are getting one point detucted because of the price. The Thompson Bros. Campbeltown Malt 2014 gets a 7, but only cost around £40. So who are the better whiskyes? I guess the Kavalans are WAY better, since the pricetag are 2-5 times more expensive.
The Vinho Barrique gets the highest score of this lot, and again cost over double. So if we remove the pricetag as a factor. Will that give the Vinho an 8 or 9? And then what about the Campbeltown malt 2014. Is that a 4 or 5 without its price tag, or is the price right, thus a 7, so it tastes as good as the Kavalans. Then again, at that price tag of 40, it should get an even higher score?
Or maybee I am just overthinking things, and are used to the much easier and understandable 0-100 point system?
Just to be clear. This is not a critique of Justine’s review, who is very good. This is just me trying to understand your “easy” scoring system 🙂
Scoring systems are a bit like smelling farts. It’s not so bad if it’s your own that you’re smelling, but inhaling someone else’s… Indeed.
We’d rather not do it and have you read our lovely words, but do it begrudgingly. It is value-based – not as subjective as you might think. If it tastes great, but costs too much for what it is – point gone. If it tastes fine but sold for £10, then it’s probably going to be weighed up accordingly.
Think of it like this: the value adjustment is really to keep brands in check – to see if they are taking the piss or being fair.
Never understood Malt’s approach to scoring. Would a 1972 Brora get negative marks because of the price? Or are you deducting points because of the price relative to similar whiskies? And how do you determine what constitutes a similar whisky?
You’re thinking too hard about it. Life is short – go for a stroll, find some sunshine…
I think you’ve answered you’re own question there Henry. If it’s a 7/10 and £40 it wins every time for me! Value for money is an essential consideration in today’s market.
Thanks for reading and for your comments.
You highlight the issue that, when it comes to whisky, one size doesn’t fit all and,as we are a team of writers, we all have different palates. I haven’t tasted the Thompson Bros Campbeltown Malt so I’m unable to compare it to any of the Kavalan range and comment on this.
Yes, if the Vinho Barrique were (much) cheaper, it would’ve scored an 8 from me.
Mark Davidson, manager of Royal Mile Whiskies and all round whisky legend, always asks 2 questions at his tastings: 1) Do you like it – yes or no? and 2) If yes, how much would you be prepared to pay for it?
So, price is an important factor which must be incorporated into the scoring system by way of value for money. And I suppose the perception of value for money is as subjective as whisky?
Exactly, value for money is almost as subjective as quality of the whisky itself. That’s why I agree it’s confusing to incorporate it into a score. One subjective makes it difficult enough already.
I think the easiest would be to let people decide for themselves what they want to spend in relation to the perceived quality of a whisky. I really do think it complicates your scoring scale more than it should.
I draw your attention to my intelligent fart smelling comment above…!
Great review. Kavalan seems to be not rushing or taking advantage of increasing demand. So I would not worry about them. King Car is a huuuuuge company. Kavalan is just a fraction of their company. They make more money non-alcoholic drinks. They also have an orchid business and a logistics arm.
Still don’t understand the scoring system. Would a 1972 Brora get negative marks because of the price? Or are you scoring relative to similar whiskies – in which case how do you decide what’s similar?
“price is an important factor which must be incorporated into the scoring system by way of value for money.” – I would say you should separate these.
Hi Anon, since I am just new at reviewing here in Malt, I just follow the the scoring bands.
I don’t factor price as much in the score. It just depends on how good the dram is. I leave it up to the reader to decide if something is worth buying by letting them read the conclusions.
Thank you for your very fast answer.
And yes I agree that price matter when it comes to purchase, but..
What I am trying to understand is. If a whisky who cost 40 gets a 7, and a whisky who cost 200 or even more gets a 7. My guess will be, the whisky who costs 200 would have to be significantly better in order to get that Mark. So the two would be equally good value for money, but the expensive one beeing the superior whisky.
Would that be a fear conclusion?
“Although none of the current range has an age statement”
Not exactly correct – the Solist Sherry has a distillation date – the bottling date can be found on Whiskybase.
Sorry, comment got posted twice.
I think score based on flavor and comment on VFM is easiest to understand and most useful.
Hi Justine, good review and a reminder of my somewhat difficult relationship with Kavalan. I quite like the Sherry Oak but I don’t think it stands out in a crowded field. My only experience of the Solist was extremely sulphered. I know there are some very good ones out there but they’re too expensive for my taste. Amrut have the same issue with hot maturation but they are half the price (Intermediate Sherry). I’m also suspicious of claims of casks seasoned in Spain. We need far more information. I was recently at a bodega in Andalusia that supplies casks for Suntory. They are filled for three years and the contents swished out for sherry vinegar. Most of the public are under the misapprehension that these barrels once contained quality drinking sherry. Even if it is a wine destined to be an Oloroso sherry it is most likely at the very earliest stage of that journey. Three or four years old is a long way from a proper Oloroso wine. I just wish Kavalan was cheaper so I wouldn’t have an excuse for not trying them properly. Cheers