It’s been a long while since Kavalan has been reviewed on MALT.
The last two reviews here were posted in October of 2019. One of those is mine, in which I partially touch on their distillery tour. The gap makes me curious as to why its popularity has seemed to decrease. I used to see Kavalan posted often on social media, but now the bulk of posts have returned to single malt Scotch, American whiskey, or Japanese whisky. Is it due to the lack of flipping? Are the prices too high? How much of Ian Chang’s departure set back Kavalan’s plans, operations, and reputation? Despite Taiwan being relatively well-off for most of 2020 and early 2021, has COVID-19 affected Kavalan?
Kavalan was a hotter name when there was more spotlight on Asian whisky. We all know the story of how Japanese whisky catapulted to fame. The recent news of its new rules has given it more attention via more speculation. Japan’s image and reputation as a country also makes people more at ease when trying anything from them. Personally, I think the new rules arose from Kurayoshi “Japanese whisky” abusing the fuck out of the lack of Japanese guidelines.
As for other Asian whiskeys… India’s single malts like Amrut, Paul John and Rampur get a mention from time to time, but I feel like their not-so-sexy reputation as a country doesn’t attract as many consumers. India’s climate also doesn’t allow their whisky to be aged for long periods. This will most likely not make them attractive to consumers who only look at age statements. Yet, this speculation doesn’t really ring true since Kavalan does well despite having no age statements.
Singapore’s Brass Lion Distillery just barreled its first single malt around late 2019 or early 2020. Barring the obvious wait time for whisky to age, there’s also the matter of how much they can produce? Casks aren’t cheap, after all. With the distillery being small and the F&B industry suffering due to the pandemic, it’s safe to say that their budget is limited—and barrels aren’t cheap.
As for whisk(e)y being produced in other better-known Asian countries like Vietnam, China and Thailand, there is nothing yet. With restricted travel, though, and the suffering F&B industry information, other plans could just be delayed.
With that said, on to the review of three official 50ml sample bottles from Kavalan.
First up is a Kavalan Bourbon Oak. This is part of the Kavalan Series and are all 46% ABV single malts except for the Classic, which is bottled at 40%. This whisky was aged in first-fill ex-bourbon casks.
Kavalan Bourbon Oak – Review
Bottled September 1, 2016. £79.95 from The Whisky Exchange. About $94 locally. NCF.
On the nose: This is essentially a boozy fruit salad. Initial fruit aromas of dried apricots, cantaloupes, apple juice, floral honey, dried mangoes, ripe plums and kumquats have a medium intensity. In between those fruit notes are light instances of toasted coconut chips, browned butter and cinnamon syrup.
In the mouth: Just as hot as on the nose, but the prickliness is normal for the ABV. This is definitely fruity-sweet. I get medium-intense tastes of apple juice, vanilla, dehydrated lemons, dried apricots, cantaloupes, coconut sugar syrup and browned butter. At the end are lighter and shorter tastes of dehydrated lemons, grapefruit, cinnamon syrup, toasted coconut chips, tepache and sapodilla.
I like that, despite the whisky being aged in first-fill casks, the distillery DNA is still pronounced.
The nose on this is better structured. It’s layering makes it easier to tell apart the different aromas. The layering in the mouth is pretty much gone. It’s just rampant with flavor until it runs out of it, and it takes a while for this whisky’s spirit to die out. It’s very long and consistent.
This whisky is good, and I like it. Too bad the price is just a bit too much for being a NAS and only 46%. I know, age shouldn’t really be a big issue for whisky. It should be all about the quality, and I know that Taiwan’s climate also allows the angels to take a big share. Still, it’s expensive, and consumers are more likely to look at age statements. I’ve had and can have just as good, or better yet, cheaper spirits.
Second is Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon. The Solist Series is Kavalan’s range for their cask-strength bottlings. These were also aged in first-fill ex-bourbon casks.
Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon
Bottled January 25 2017. 54% ABV. $130 locally, but it’s a different batch. SRP is NTD 3,000.
On the nose: Very similar to the 46% ex-bourbon. However, the cask influence is more dominant here. The vanilla, honey and toasted coconut chips are more pronounced. The fruitiness appears later on and takes on more of a supportive role.
In the mouth: As expected, it’s more prickly, but still similar to the 46%. Surprisingly, the fruity notes here are still more dominant. The main difference is that the honey, vanilla, coconut sugar syrup and cinnamon syrup notes are a bit more pronounced and linger more. A mix of dried mangoes, apple cider and dried apricots also appears at the end and lingers for a long while.
Excellent. This is definitely an upgrade in every sense from the 46%, and the price of this isn’t that huge when compared to the 46%, so the difference doesn’t matter much to me.
Anyone looking for a single malt with lots of tropical fruits that still has a fair amount of cask flavor should try this ex-Bourbon Solist. This is one of the more memorable single malts I’ve tried lately.
Last is a Kavalan Solist Oloroso Sherry Cask. This is highly likely aged in first-fill ex-Oloroso sherry casks.
Kavalan Solist Oloroso Sherry Cask – Review
Bottled October 5 2019. 54% abv. SRP is NTD 3,500.
Color: Polished wood
On the nose: Unsurprisingly a sherry bomb. I get pronounced aromas of cherry and orange flavored gummy bears, sultanas, raisins, prunes and dried dates. In the middle are medium aromas of browned bananas, dried apricots, pears and apples. At the end is the distillery DNA being expressed. I get light aromas of melons, starfruit, sapodilla and sulfur.
In the mouth: Unlike the nose, this is a sulfur bomb. The sulfur in this is so pronounced that I immediately spat out the whisky and drank water. Behind the awful sulfur are light tastes of coffee, chocolate and lots of tannins.
I liken the nose on this single malt to interacting with someone online who has very attractive photos, and with whom you get along with them very well… only to find out they really look like The CryptKeeper when you meet them in person. Can I demand compensation for this horrid experience?
Photos courtesy of The Whisky Exchange (lead image) and Kavalan (others).
One of the common complaints that I hear locally is of the huge batch/barrel variation you can get with Kavalan bottles. So you might not like this particular Solist Sherry for eg, but you might be fine with another bottle from another barrel.
Like you, my first bottle of Solist Sherry many years ago was a sulfur bomb which unfortunately turned me off the Kavalan brand until recently when I tried a LMDW-exclusive virgin oak which was amazing.
Hi KC, thanks for the comment. The solist range are mostly single cask as far as I know. And that would totally guarantee a varied quality of releases since no one has figured out yet how to make single casks consistent. I’ve never been amazed the pure ex-wine cask Solists from Kavalan. Even their award winning Vinho Barriques didn’t hit the spot for me. Was it good? Yes. Was it worth the price? No. Was it worthy of the hype? No.
I totally get the variances in single casks, but these have a spectacular difference between what’s available in most places versus what we get to experience at Whiskey Shows and events. I’ve noticed the few times I’ve had the Soloist at whiskey events was by far better than when I purchased through stores.
Hi PB, that’s an interesting note. It does lend credence to allegations toward brands who bring bottles from really good single casks in events and awards.