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A Kavalan Tasting

“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.

Score: 6/10

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.

Colour: mahogany

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.

Score: 6/10

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.

Score: 7/10

Conclusions

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.

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