Few distilleries provoke such a discordance of opinions as the Taiwanese distillery, Kavalan, does. There is some distrust towards this professionally lauded distillery, which has won no shortfall of prizes including the World’s Best Single Malt at the 2015 World Whiskies Awards.
There, I said it.
People can’t agree if Kavalan makes good whisky or not. This distrust almost has nothing to do with taste. Whatever Kavalan does is somehow grounds for criticism:
“No age statements despite the price!”
“Accelerated maturation due to climate is just marketing hype!”
“Indiscriminate wine cask finishing!”
“Any and all cask types with no consideration for the spirit itself!”
“Too many awards; they must have paid for it!”
… the accusations go on.
It almost borders on some sort of philosophical gripe with the distillery’s existence itself, which, granted, was something the Taiwanese government was not supportive of. They rejected founder Lee Tien-Tsai’s application to build a whisky distillery several times. It was only after Taiwan had become a member of the World Trade Organization in 2002 that the door was opened for Kavalan to begin on its path to become an award-winning whisky-maker.
It is undeniable that the distillery makes some pretty memorable whiskies, with a DNA of its own. A Kavalan single malt packs a punch. You’d be hard pressed to deny that it holds its own, and you’d certainly know upon tasting that it’s a Kavalan.
Today I got a dram of the latest Kavalan release – the Triple Sherry Cask – which (right on cue) is already a lightning rod for complaints. This time, critics seem to focus on it being bottled at 40% ABV, right on the edge of what is legally required of whiskies.
Since the “hows” of Kavalan’s genesis have already been covered on Malt (by Noortje and most recently, by John), I’d like to explore the “whys” of Kavalan’s choice to bottle at a lower proof in spite of such critics.
I can understand the allure of “cask strength” whisky and its pure, unadulterated, nature. Yet I don’t agree with the countervailing disdain for lower proof bottlings. Call me foolish. In this case, I am inclined to believe in the better angels of the distiller’s nature caused them to bottle at a strength intended for direct enjoyment, rather than take the more cynical view that they were simply stretching their supply for profit.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not absolving all distillers from doing the dirty, but I think distilleries these days are sophisticated enough to focus more on branding on making a couple of extra bucks by stretching the alcohol. A great brand means more returning happy customers and better word-of-mouth, which is essentially free and at the same time powerful marketing. A great brand also means the ability to raise prices and still have returning customers.
What does branding have to do with a lower ABV?
There has been an increasingly difficult-to-ignore shift to lower or even no-proof “alcohol.” The runaway success of stuff like Lyre’s says it all. Well-established whisky-makers from Johnnie Walker to Compass Box are increasingly realising the importance of the massive market of casual drinkers. Even Glenmorangie has released the made-for-mixer “X by Glenmorangie”. So, while it seemed obvious to indict the Kavalan for skimping on alcohol, I think it’s entirely possible that the intention is to tap into a market that appreciates whisky that is lower in proof, but rich in flavour. Alcohol isn’t the only flavour compound.
Suntory’s Master Blender, Shinji Fukuyo, also defends lower proof whisky. He tells us “A higher proof often means that the impact of the alcohol itself becomes stronger, and so you may lose the softness or roundness of a whisky.” This observation really matters when you consider Asian drinking culture.
Briefly read the history of whisky in Japan and you will notice the successes of lighter-flavoured blends in the industry’s nascent days. These Japanese blends found their biggest consumers in the form of casual drinkers throwing down light, refreshing whisky highballs every other meal. This way of imbibing is a vastly different experience from the picture of sipping a robust and smoky Scotch while you sit in a leather armchair beside a fireplace. There are exceptions like me, but by and large most Asians prefer lighter alcohols. With the difference in culture comes a difference in what people look for in a whisky.
What makes for a good whisky? If you have been reading carefully, you’d say that it depends on where you come from. A good whisky in Asia is probably not the same as a good whisky in Western society. Of course, globalisation has blurred the lines, but deep rifts in the tectonic plates still exist below the surface.
In Asia, there is an implicit preference for drinkability; this means smoothness in texture, more points for top notes rather than base notes, and a refreshing finish. There are parallels; East Asian cuisine is typically lighter than Western food, what with their sushi, phở and dim sum. Even in the realm of commercial ice cream brands, the amped-up and chunky Ben and Jerry’s struggles to grow in Asia as compared to Häagen-Dazs, whose lighter flavours and smoother textures (think green tea or azuki bean) are much more popular with Asians.
Kavalan is no amateur hour contender. Before going into single malt, Lee Tien-Tsai cut his teeth in a notoriously difficult coffee market in Taiwan, beating out the likes of Starbucks. This is not a plea of exoneration, but I’d take my bet that the 40% ABV was a deliberate effort to penetrate Asian markets which are full of new drinkers who may sometimes be less than enthused about whisky.
With triple emphasis on triple Sherry, one can imagine that what they were going for was an amplification of the high notes at the expense of a greater alcoholic punch. This, coupled with the fact that Kavalans are largely bottled at fairly (comparatively/relatively) young ages (due to their climate), means that you’d have to lower the ABV even more so, lest it gets too hot for the tongue.
With my thesis out of the way, let’s get to tasting this.
Kavalan Triple Sherry Cask – Review
Oloroso, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel casks. 40% ABV. Retails for around US $92 on KrisShop by Singapore Airlines.
Colour: A bright chili oil red, almost florescent under light.
On the nose: Immediately perfumy with plumes of various scents almost gushing out of the glass. What strikes me most is how rich and clean it is, with a very deep red berry flavor opening up. At times this can come across a little punchy and sharp but the aromas of dried apricots, dates and pomegranates prevent it from coming across hot.
There’s an acidity amidst the sweetness reminiscent of green grapes, tart blueberries and cherries that mingles with what is almost a Mediterranean flavor here – rosemary, thyme, and the works. Think fresh focaccia bread, honey baked ham, cream cheese and some honey and pine nuts.
If Kavalan was going for the top notes, they’re certainly here.
There’s more. The richer base notes start to make an appearance with some aeration, giving off a mellow milky espresso notes and the scent of a woody potpourri. There is also the characteristic Kavalan hotness present- a reminder of its youth.
With three different Sherry casks interlaid, I wouldn’t say that the notes are so well-defined that I could specifically taste the individual influence of the Oloroso, or the PX or the Moscatel cask. That said, the nose demonstrates a good level of complexity with the combination of rich berry notes and Mediterranean herbs and bitter espresso.
In the mouth: As one would expect from a whisky that carries the label “Triple Sherry,” there are some heavy Sherry notes with lots of dried fruits. The usual suspects of raisins, apricots and cherries make forefront appearances. There’s also a slight zesty twang from what I imagine to be candied pineapples and ginger candy.
The texture on the palate is also classically Kavalan smooth, but far richer than past Kavalans I’ve tried from the Solist range. It almost puts the alcoholic heat on the backburner. It could use more body but that would really be a leap for the Taiwanese distillery.
The milky espresso notes of the nose carry over to the palate as milk chocolate and nutty praline. This gives some contrasting astringency to the otherwise saccharine palate of a honeyed pound cake with cinnamon.
Overall, it was enjoyable. It could certainly do with more body, yet I would imagine that the risk of over-oaking would become far too real and the bitterness would throw it off. Here, the Moscatel played a bigger part, while holding back the Oloroso and PX.
The finish is moderately long and gets drying and bitter. Milk chocolates from the palate turn into woody and balsamic notes from the Oloroso. Little flecks of tart berries show up occasionally.
I found the transition here a little too abrupt for my liking, while the puckering bitterness makes this less smooth than I had hoped.
The goal with the Triple Sherry was to isolate the Oloroso’s dried fruit and buoy it with rich, sweetness from the PX and Moscatel. This was executed fairly well, and isn’t just the usual overwhelming Sherry bomb. I can definitely see some of those intended nuances.
The nose demonstrated splendid harmony, and the flavourful palate was exactly what it had sought to achieve. This fails to stick a perfect landing due to its slightly too bitter and dry finish. Overall, though, Kavalan has done an impressive job in holding a trapeze balancing act at least until the finish.
When the Kavalan Triple Sherry was announced, it was met with skepticism. In my view, this is a very enjoyable dram that is great value for money at its price. The low ABV isn’t an issue in my view. If anything, it might have been necessary to (a) hold the hotness of the whisky’s youth at bay, and (b) bar the astringency of the Oloroso from crashing the party. Any much higher and the balance could have been tossed as hinted by the bitter finish, which I felt was perhaps the least enjoyable part.
It is very drinkable and a good daily sipper. I reckon it would pair well with a rich and substantial dinner (perhaps a Spanish chorizo and paella?), which in my opinion is likely the kind of whisky the distillery had sought to create. They certainly stand more to gain from making a whisky that could be directly consumed at a more casual setting like dinner, than a cask strength whisky which the drinker has to sip carefully or even dilute.
There is some skepticism and cynicism surrounding Kavalan, but I would give them some credit. A good distillery should have a wide enough range to cater to a variety of settings. If high proof mattered so much, we are free to pick out anything from their cask strength Solist selection – those are pretty easy to find.
Lead image courtesy of Kavalan.
Really nice, thoughtful review Han
It’s very funny that people complain about expensive NAS releases but they give Macallan’s limited ed releases a pass.
In regards to your comment on lighter flavors being preferred, it even goes back to the 1800s when the column still first came about. So many quickly adapted to it. This leads me to wonder if most people are afraid of flavor.
I agree that Kavalan makes memorable whiskys. Their new make/distillery DNA is outstanding. It really shines more in ex-bourbon casks. But sadly, their best sellers are the ex-wine casks which tend to drown out the delicious distillery DNA.
I particularly like the quote: ““A higher proof often means that the impact of the alcohol itself becomes stronger, and so you may lose the softness or roundness of a whisky.”
There is no need to explain or justify people not liking high alcohol whiskies. And there is definitely no need to enable the “80 proof whisky sucks” crowd. Not everyone needs their tastebuds pounded with alcohol to enjoy a whisky.
Love the nuanced take, Han! Your piece is a reminder that there isn’t a single path that whisky production or presentation must take to be good, and it makes me reflect on what moments and conditions call for the need to give distilleries/brands and their or their owners’ choices the benefit of the doubt.
Really interesting review! It makes me wonder what could have been done to resolve the drying/bitter finish somewhat given how much good the whisky seems to offer otherwise. My first thought was some 80-proof “unfinished” ex-bourbon Kavalan added to the blend to offset whatever causes that effect.